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Crisis in Puerto Rico: The Humanity Behind the Numbers

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Fordham University

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Crisis in Puerto Rico: The Humanity Behind the Numbers

It's easy to become numb to the numbers and news stories that surround us if we don't keep the human stories behind them in mind.

Jennifer Clark

10.12.17

When Luz Comacho was a little girl she had a penchant for eating small spoonfuls of molasses as a special treat. She liked to sing along to the “La Cucaracha” with her friends. Luz was pulled out of school before even completing an elementary education so that she could help take care of her family. Depsite her parents not seeing the value of school, Luz grew up to be smart as a whip with a quick mouth always ready to crack a joke or lovingly tease. She could have had anyone on the Island she wanted. Julio Pagan was one of seventeen children and his parents made moonshine in the backyard. He didn’t grow up with much, but he came away with a playful disposition and a habit of making music out of anything. Although they grew up on an Island less than 100 miles long, these two Puerto Rican kids wouldn’t encounter one another until they came to work in a factory in New York City. Julio pursued Luz relentlessly. She rebuffed him as he was younger and known as a casanova around the block. After time he won her over and they made a life for themselves in Washington Heights, eventually returning to Puerto Rico later in life.

Fast forward to present day and this couple has to watch the destruction of their nation from a couch in New Jersey. They have no choice but to stand by as the home to their family, community, and memories are drowned by a dangerous mix of mother nature, an apathetic government, and an underwhelming crisis response. This isn’t the first time in their lives they have felt the pain of belonging to a seemingly forgotten territory within the United States with a president they did not even elect.

Unfortunately, the greater portion of the American public thinks of Puerto Rico in conjunction with their own day to day lives, as a vacation destination, or ground zero of natural disaster. This isn’t a story of numbers and isn't breaking news. This is a human story, the reality of those personally affected by the tragedy currently occurring in Puerto Rico.

I talked with my family from Manatí to gauge reactions and the actual level of destruction facing the Island, one that can never truly be measured by statistics.

Me: How do you feel about the level of destruction? What is it like to see your home like this?

Grandpa: I feel terrible this hurricane has destroyed Puerto Rico and my heart breaks for my family that is suffering. I am an old man and I feel helpless to see such despair without being able to do anything to help my people. I have donated some money to the Red Cross but it seems so minimal given the devastation.

Me: How do you feel about the government's response and Trump's comments on the matter?

Grandpa: Instead of responding to the Humanitarian crisis of the Island, he remarks about how Puerto Ricans are lazy and have done nothing to help themselves- this was cruel.

Mom: The public humiliation of the Puerto Rican people is unacceptable, but typical of the Trump government. I feel that Puerto Rico has been the forgotten child, they have taken all its resources and not given the Island the support needed to compete in the 21st century. In many aspects, Puerto Rico is like a third world country in its infrastructure, preparedness for emergencies and in the lack of medical standards.

Me: Many Puerto Ricans in the states have been unable to contact family on the Island due to major loss of power and internet causing widespread anxiety. Have you heard any updates from family on the island?

Grandma: I have only gotten updates from two of my family members but have not been able to contact any other family.

Me: Clearly there is much reason to be concerned, what worries you the most in this situation?

Grandpa: I have only been able to speak to one family member and she is barely getting by without food, water, electricity and cash. I am extremely worried; I have three siblings and haven’t spoken to any of them. I hope and pray that they are OK. I have sent them a package but I’m not certain it will get there.

Grandma: They don’t have any food, electricity and water. In addition, the bank was only able to give them $100 of their social security check because they had limited amount of money available.

Me: Long before Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rico was already plagued by a litany of issues thanks to years of neglect and stagnation caused by the United States’s disregard of the Island. The poverty rate was at 45%, unemployment 10%, and the Island had already sought bankruptcy relief in federal courts this year (the first United States territory or state to take such drastic measures). How do you see Puerto Rico recovering from this?

Grandpa: It will take a long time, but the Island will recover. I hope that the government provides the Island the help it needs. I have seen [the destruction of] my town and the restoration of its the streets and businesses will take a lot of time and money.

Mom: The effects of this natural disaster will be felt for a long time. Before the hurricane, the youth and professionals of Puerto Rico were already leaving the island in hopes of outside opportunities due to the brain drain phenomenon. The exodus will continue and perhaps at a faster rate.

Me: I agree, the recovery of the Island will certainly be a long journey, one made even harder, longer, and more costly if the government’s apathy continues. What role do you think the government should have in recovery efforts?

Grandpa: Unfortunately, we do sometimes feel like second class citizens. We need the same level of aid and attention that was provided to Houston.

This is just the story of one family affected by Hurricane Maria. There are many more like us who have not been able to contact family and mourn the destruction of places we loved. There is an even greater number whose situations are more dire. It’s easy to listen to the news surrounding Puerto Rico and feel empathetic or somber. $74 million in debt. 45 deaths. 55% without clean water. 80% of agriculture destroyed. 425 years of foreign occupation. The numbers are daunting, but looking past the statistics is what gives us the most sobering view of all. It is vital to look at a natural disaster of this proportion through a human lens so that we do not become lost in the stats. Without keeping this reality in mind, the numbers begin to numb. Trump is not just an angry orange man that’s there to scoff and laugh at. His actions have real, human consequences. Your action or inaction has consequences too. Do what you can to support the people of Puerto Rico. Don’t take Trump’s approach of mocking the Island and throwing paper towels into the crowd like he’s a mascot blasting off a tee shirt gun at half time. Talk to Puerto Ricans. Listen to them. Don’t only empathize, put that sympathy into effective action.

Make sure to join us and show your support for the people of Puerto Rico at our party this weekend! Bring a $5 donation or any of the goods listed in our Facebook event for entry; all profits will go to relief efforts.

As for Puerto Ricans, we're not going to wait around for everything to be done for us, as Trump claims. We are going to keep doing what we've always done, work our asses off.