A Problem Like Maria

By Anne Hicks

Just two weeks after Hurricane Irma, Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Maria, a smaller yet significantly more devastating storm. The destruction of the island, in the wake of Maria’s massive winds and heavy rains has overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure and caused significant damage to the environment and raised concern over the accurate portrayal of death tolls in the aftermath of disaster.

While Irma was a powerful Category 5 hurricane, it passed West and did not directly hit the island of Puerto Rico. Maria, on the other hand, although categorized as a smaller category four hurricane, proved more devastating than Irma because it passed straight over the island and hit at its most intense moment. After Irma, one million Puerto Ricans were left without power. By the time Maria hit on September 20th, thirteen days after Irma, 60,000 of those one million people were still without power. Now, in early October, many of the 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are still missing power. According to a statement made by the Department of Defense on October 11th, three weeks after Maria, only 16% of the population has electricity. Unfortunately, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority suspects that an outage at a Puerto Rican nuclear plant may have decreased that number to 10%. Maria’s 150 mph winds have destroyed the island’s infrastructure and rendered the people powerless, waterless, and with limited fuel and access to communication services. Without electricity, it is impossible for water to be pumped into homes for drinking, bathing, and flushing toilets. Access to clean and fresh water has become a predominant problem. Because the energy system on the island was already poorly established, the storm destroyed an estimated 80% of the island’s power lines and it is projected to take from four to six months to restore power. It is understood that the implications of such prolonged power loss are many for a hot, tropical climate that will be left without air conditioning or electric water pumps, hospitals running on generators and limited fuel, and for anyone attempting to leave the territory.

All of the infrastructures on the island has been shocked. Because the main dam was structurally damaged in the storm, water supply became immediately threatened. Without electricity, generators on the island are relying on gas and a shortage of fuel and difficulty distributing fuel has become a major concern of officials and residents. As previously mentioned, the poor management of the government-owned power company has complicated the reconstruction of connection to power lines. It is approximated that 80% of the “transmission and distribution infrastructure” has been lost. Further complicating the mess, the fact that Puerto Rico is an island has made it extremely difficult to deliver relief. In response to the limited operation of hospitals, the U.S. Navy brought its floating hospital, the USNS Comfort, to Puerto Rico last week.

In addition to massively damaging the territory’s infrastructure, Hurricane Maria destroyed much of El Yunque, the only tropical forest in the U.S. and one of the island’s main tourist attractions, bringing in 1.2 million visitors each year. The overwhelming defoliation of the forest poses risks not only for the animals who inhabit the forest but for the people who rely on the health of the ecosystem to direct the water. Research suggests that 20% of the water used for drinking on the island comes from the capturing of water by plants in these forests which direct the water towards streams and rivers. The efficiency of this process is now at risk, especially considering the destruction of tree mosses like Bryophytes that used to help collect water that is drained into rivers. Animals who made their habitats in the forest, especially birds and bats, will face a long battle to establish new homes and sources of food. Although much of the forest vegetation has been decimated, the pre-established biodiversity of the forest is suspected to aid in the recovery of the ecosystem over time.

An emerging concern in the wake of Hurricane Maria is over the reported death toll and how that number might vary across sources.  How fatality counts are decided, and when certain deaths are deemed directly related to the hurricane have become topics of debate. The cause of death is left to be determined by the individual’s coroner or doctor, making many deaths that have resulted from the hurricane instead labeled as the result of other contributing health factors. The way a death is interpreted, then, is often open to a variety of conclusions. This grey area is perpetuated further by the infrastructural incapacity to accurately count death tolls, the hesitance of families of illegal immigrants to report deaths, and the politics behind the numbers reported. President Trump, for example, made a point of comparing the low death toll in Puerto Rico to that of Hurricane Katrina in order to defend the administration’s response to disaster relief efforts. In a developing country, on the other hand, the death toll may be dramatized to muster more support and donations for relief efforts. Regardless of the motivation, it is clear that death tolls for this disaster and disasters to come may never be truly telling of the actual situation on the ground.

Hurricane Maria has devastated the people of the island of Puerto Rico, leaving in its wake the destruction of the territory’s infrastructure and environment, as well as raising questions about the ability of any government to report death tolls accurately after a disaster has occurred. As the territory begins to rebuild, it will be important to continue to support Puerto Ricansand the environment that they call home.