Puerto Rico, la Isla del Encanto, Borinquén, is a magical place.
There is nothing like its warm, humid and sweet air. The sound of the coqui frogs echo in your ears like a lullaby. The lush green hillsides rise up beside their white sand beaches. The sounds of salsa, bomba, and reggaeton playing in the streets of Viejo San Juan, or the aroma of sazón and adobo wafting throughout the island.
My mom is Puerto Rican. I have family and friends on the island and try to visit often, but the last time I was there, things had changed. This was due to Hurricane Maria, which hit the island in 2017.
I still have a clear memory of that day. I was on my way to school and my mom stopped to tell me about the hurricane barreling toward the island. It was difficult to fathom the idea that while I was sitting inside my bright warm classroom, my family would be huddled in their dark houses, storm shutters on windows, listening to the whooshing wind, pouring rain, and the sound of destruction.
After we learned just how strong the hurricane was, we worked hard to aid my family on the island. We sent hand crank chargers and lanterns, a generator, food, and anything that would help them — not knowing at the time that it would take months for them to receive any of it.
My mom worried daily. When would we hear from our family? Were they OK? What could we do to help? Time passed, and fortunately, my family was safe. But as the news slowly revealed, many on the island were not so lucky.
Maria, a Category 4 hurricane, cut off 100 percent of the electricity on the island and caused $94.4 billion in damage. Of the island’s crops, 80 percent were wiped out and 130,000 residents were forced to leave their homes. The death toll, which took almost a year to release, stood at 2,975, making it one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history.
On average, after Maria, houses went 84 days without power, 64 days without water, and 41 days without cell service. Many struggled for years without adequate healthcare and basic services. Even today — six years later — most are still affected by Maria, and today regular power outages are considered normal.
As time went on, I continued to hear about the outrage from fellow Puerto Ricans for the mishandling of the disaster relief fund that had been set aside for them and never received. After Maria, I vowed to educate myself and others to find ways to uplift Puerto Ricans however I could.
In the same year that Maria struck, Hurricane Harvey affected residents in Texas, and Hurricane Irma — the hurricane that arrived as a precursor to Maria and also hit Puerto Rico — struck Florida.
Why is it that the aid for hurricane Maria — which caused much more damage — was half of what Texans and Floridians received? Both Harvey and Irma survivors received $100 million from FEMA, while Puerto Rican survivors of Maria received $6 million.
To add insult to injury, Trump, who was president at the time, showed total disregard for Puerto Rico and its residents by visiting the island after Maria and tossing paper towels into a crowd of needy Puerto Ricans.
The President of the United States threw paper towels at people in dire need of aid and supplies.
Growing up in California, we are used to natural disasters, from wildfires to earthquakes to droughts. These have become a part of our lives. Hurricanes are the same for Puerto Ricans.
But for every minor wildfire and earthquake or hurricane, there is often one that hits hardest, causing huge amounts of damage. The difference is that when a wildfire ravages homes and communities in California, everyone knows about it and works to aid those in need, with local, state, and federal governments providing support.
Americans fight to help fellow Americans.
When a crisis strikes Puerto Rico, we somehow seem to forget that Puerto Ricans are Americans, too.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this commentary, which will be published in our April 6, 2023 issue.
Galicia Stack Lozano is a Junior in high school in San Francisco. She has a Puerto Rican mother and an Irish father.