Tag Archives: rebuilding

Puerto Rico Two Years After Hurricane Maria

San Juan         Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico a little over two years ago on September 17, 2017, with more force as a Cat-5 storm than any in the recorded history of the island.  In San Juan, the damage seemed slight and hardly noticeable.  Once on the highways crisscrossing the island to Ponce, the second largest city, and up the coast to Guanica, and later to the smaller island of Culebra, it was harder to ignore.  Major highway toll roads would go from smooth to pocked within miles.  Blue tarps still dotted the neighborhoods with some houses abandoned.

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans fifteen years ago and, in the aftermath, I wrote a book, published in 2011, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster.  I was curious whether or not we had really learned lessons and how they were implemented.  The news from Puerto Rico had not been encouraging.  On the two-year anniversary, the New York Times had reported,

With Puerto Rico still in the throes of a debt crisis and hurting from a 12-year economic recession, there is no money set aside for a study to identify the estimated 2,975 people who died as a result of the hurricane, [Wanda] Vázquez, Puerto Rico’s governor, told local reporters. Federal funds have yet to come in for a single permanent road reconstruction project, reported El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper. The island municipality of Vieques still does not have a hospital. Up to 30,000 homes remain covered by blue roof tarps that were supposed to be temporary — about half the number of houses under tarps at the time of the one-year anniversary a year ago.

The clearest lesson of Katrina had been that the money had to get on the ground quickly.  The grade on that lesson in Puerto Rico is a big, fat F.

I talked to Willie Cosme frequently after the storm, at least as frequently as was possible, since the entire island was without electricity and internet for many months.  We sat in the back of the Poetry Passage in Old San Juan on Wade’s World to get his reactions.  Willie lived and worked in Arkansas for thirty-seven years and brought Spanish language programming and his great show, Salsa from A to Z, to KABF thirty years ago and continues to be a volunteer engineer for AM/FM remotely from the center of the island.  He said that people were hopeful the recovery money was coming soon, and that it appeared their federal monitor would release it finally.  Puerto Ricans were “resilient,” he said, and population was increasing again after so many had been forced to flee to the United States without recovery.  There were plans to rebuild the electricity grid in regions rather than the one-grid system that had plunged the island into darkness, but some wanted to privatize the system.  No infrastructure money had made it difficult to rebuild roads, hospitals, schools.

People may have been resilient, but they weren’t happy, particularly at the government and the governor.  Two weeks of protests had forced his resignation.  The island’s attorney general, Wanda Vasquez, had been the last one standing.  Willie thought she had done a good job, partially because, not having been elected, she was forced to work with both major parties, not just her own, the Progressives, the traditional statehood party.  Elections are in November 2020, and though Vasquez had said she would not run, the new support and the public’s growing intolerance for corruption and ineffective government, might change her mind.

It seems trivial to say that Puerto Rico’s recovery is a work-in-progress, especially since much of the work has not even begun to progress, but my companero, Willie Cosme, is cautiously optimistic.  Few lessons have been learned, but once again people prove that we all live the words of the old Donna Summers song, and “we will survive.”


Katrina and Maria, More Disaster Anniversaries and Lessons Unlearned

Screenshot of Gwen Adams’ interview on WWLTV https://www.wwltv.com/video/news/lower-9th-ward-13-years-after-katrina/289-8234818

Greenville        In New Zealand we were asked, “How is New Orleans?”  In California, whether Santa Rosa or Sonoma, the question arose, “How is New Orleans?”  Thirteen years have passed since Hurricane Katrina swept through the city, and the question is still important, “How is New Orleans?”  The answer:  better than it was, but not as good as it needs to be.

That’s not a whine, just a statement of fact.  Another new Mayor is now in charge, our first woman, an African-American again, and our first non-native born in a long, long time.  There’s hope mixed with thirteen years of cynicism.  Too many plans have been made without enough progress.

The big local television station reached out for ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, so that they could dig deep into the lingering impacts felt by one of their leaders, Gwen Adams.  They wanted to tell the story through a personal lens, but her organizational t-shirt cries out about how political this is.  Gwen lives within a spit of the levee in the lower 9th ward.  She was a union teacher in the New Orleans Public School System.  She was fired like thousands of others, and despite the fact that she was a former Teacher-of-the-Year in Orleans Parish, she was never offered a return to work.  She was also unwilling to go to work at lower pay, forfeited retirement and other benefits, and no job security or protection for a charter operator.  She is now a sometimes substitute teacher.  She is a great ACORN and ACV leader.  These are the facts.

The facts are also being reckoned with in Puerto Rico almost a year after the island was slammed by Hurricane Maria.  The governor there actually apologized, which is a refreshing surprise.  He also announced that the death total is now estimated at near 3000 people compared to the earlier estimates that were hardly one-hundred.  In the same report, the news story mentioned that the death total from Katrina is still not known absolutely.  The governor noted that they had no disaster plan that assumed no power, no highway access, and no communication.  George Washington University in the District of Columbia has been doing a study for them, but it is hard to believe there will be any surprises.

A spokesperson for the Milken Institute argued that the lesson of Puerto Rico is “focus as much as possible on lower-income areas, on people who are older, who are more vulnerable.”  A survey from Kaiser Health Foundation and others in Texas in the wake of Harvey found that the same populations were still suffering there.  We all thought that was also the lesson learned from Katrina thirteen years ago.

When are we going to be willing to really act on the lessons we keep being taught after disasters?  No one seems to know – or act on – the lessons we keep being forced to learn at the price of suffering and death.