In the five months after Hurricane Maria, nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died. Their deaths were largely preventable.
They died because they were diabetic and couldn’t keep their medication refrigerated during the months-long power outage that followed the hurricane, which was the longest blackout in U.S. history. They died gasping for air because their respirators needed electricity. They died from treatable chronic conditions because they couldn’t get across the island to see one of Puerto Rico’s few remaining specialists. They committed suicide. They died because their local healthcare provider closed down and they were turned away from overburdened hospitals.
How is it possible that in America in 2018 an elderly person might die of a heat stroke or dehydration while thousands of water bottles lay forgotten in the sun mere miles away?
Before August 28, when the Puerto Rican government acknowledged that at least 2,975 people died on the island due to Hurricane Maria, the official death toll was only 64. On September 13, Donald J. Trump tweeted that “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…” Trump continued by claiming that the numbers were elevated, a Democratic hoax meant “to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising billions of dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico.”
3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
As angry as I feel, I didn’t need to see President Trump throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans at the height of the crisis to know where his heart was. After all, he launched his campaign by stirring up anti-Latin sentiments.
A year after Hurricane Maria devastated my homeland, what I feel angriest about are the many systems and institutions in place that allow for a humanitarian crisis on American soil to go all but disregarded. These are the same machines that have kept the residents of Flint, Michigan from having clean water since April 2014, and the same structures that compel investigators to tarnish the character of Botham Jean, the man who was murdered in his own home in Dallas, Texas earlier this month. These are the same systems responsible for the separation of immigrant families and the jailing of children at the border. The ones that would ask us to turn a blind eye to the serial murders of immigrant women at the hands of a Border Patrol agent.
And these systems have long exploited Puerto Rico under the guise of care while robbing the U.S. territory of its autonomy.
Long before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico found itself in a precarious position: it was going through a decade-long economic collapse, austerity measures were forcing the closure of key social programs and institutions, and, despite having more residents than 20 American states, Puerto Rico has no power to vote for congressional representatives or the president. In short: were Trump not president, the island’s colonial status and financial crisis would have left Puerto Rico still particularly vulnerable to natural disasters like Hurricane Maria.
Notwithstanding, Trump’s behavior towards Puerto Ricans in the wake of Hurricane Maria undeniably adds insult to injury.
There’s a poster making its rounds on the internet. It hangs in a classroom in a school where the students are predominantly children of color. “You are the grandchildren of the people they tried to erase,” it reads. Since Trump’s tweets denying the Hurricane Maria death count, I’ve thought about that poster a lot and the resilience that is often required of American communities of color. President Trump’s tweets and the lackadaisical federal response amount to nothing short of an attempted erasure.
I think of the vigilante workers who restored power when the federal response was too slow. I think of the people who looked in on my abuela (grandmother), and about San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz wading through waist-high water to reach Puerto Rico’s capital’s residents. I think of the mantra that emerged in Hurricane Maria’s wake, “Puerto Rico se levanta” – Puerto Rico rises up. I know it to be just as true now as it was a year ago. We rise up every day and we are the people who refuse to be erased.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.