Six months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, many news outlets have moved on from the story. Some outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times have continued to report on the hurricane, but in a way that leads readers to believe that Puerto Rico is recovering. Displaying pictures of infrastructure reparations, garbage removal and dried terrain, these two media outlets describe a flourishing environment in which the island’s road to recovery is optimistic. Whether they are aware of it or not, these two media outlets are perpetuating the United States’ culture of neglect and ignorance toward Puerto Rico by continuing to undermine the crisis on the island. It is crucial to understand that the crisis is not just a result of the hurricane but one that has been developing for years as a result of numerous factors, including the national debt amounting to over $70 billion. Therefore, to say that the island is recovering by simply looking at the little progress after the hurricane is careless as it dismisses the other hindrances that were present before.
Education has been and remains a service that is crumbling in Puerto Rico. Six months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican students have collectively missed over 13 million school days. Claiming to uphold Puerto Ricans’ best interests, Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced a public education reform bill that introduces new charter schools across the island. Looking to privatize education in Puerto Rico, Rosselló and Julia Keleher, secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Education, are taking advantage of the damaged school system and the despondent Puerto Ricans who want a solution. Although Rosselló’s plan was met with strikes and protests, the island’s Senate and House approved the bill. Rosselló’s announcement to close hundreds of public schools and this decision to privatize public schools on the island will certainly spark more protests leading to further instability for Puerto Rican students. Thousands have already fled the island’s conditions, and as the access to public schools on the island decreases, more Puerto Ricans will be forced to move to mainland United States and abandon their home.
It is easy to measure the physical progress manifesting after the hurricane, but there are invisible scars that, when taken into consideration, reveal that Puerto Ricans will need more than new houses to truly recover. Health is deteriorating across the island, and a mental health crisis is unfolding. Reports compiled by Puerto Rico’s Department of Health indicate that suicide attempts have more than tripled since the hurricane, and the suicide rate spiked in 2017. As more Puerto Ricans are likely to have suicidal thoughts or commit suicide, healthcare continues to degenerate. There is a shortage of medical supplies and staff, and data suggests that the death toll on the island after the hurricane increased. The government still has not conducted an official count of hurricane-related deaths, but studies show that diabetes, pneumonia, sepsis, breathing disorders, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s deaths surged. Neglecting to address these facts in the discussion of recovery is an injustice to Puerto Ricans.
Some of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and territory may have been fixed, but that does not mean that Puerto Rico has recovered. Even if buildings are reconstructed, electricity is restored and businesses are reopened, those advances will never erase the U.S. government and FEMA’s dismal response after the hurricane. Physical improvements do not address the underlying economic and societal hardships Puerto Ricans have suffered under as a result of American colonialism. Puerto Rico is not just a tourist destination that has to be physically restored; it’s a nation of people who, as victims of disaster capitalism and colonialism, deserve better.
A version of this article appeared in the March 26 print edition. Email Paola Nagovitch at [email protected]