Roots, Reflection, and Action: Supporting Puerto Rico
As a Nuyorican—a Puerto Rican New Yorker—you learn early in life to pay attention to the weather during hurricane season. Last month, I spent many hours watching weather reports and looking at storm projections in anticipation of what was to come. Hurricanes Irma and Maria have since devastated Puerto Rico, leaving the majority of the island without food, water, or electricity. I have never lived on the island, but have spent many summers and holidays visiting my grandparents and other family and friends who do. I am extremely saddened to see the condition of the island and cannot help but think about how much of this was preventable.
As a doctoral candidate in Columbia University’s Climate and Health program, I know that climate change means that storms like Maria will continue to increase in frequency and intensity throughout much of the world. No single storm can be directly attributed to climate change, but we do know warmer ocean waters and rising sea levels provide more “fuel” and opportunity for devastating and catastrophic events. Indeed, by some measures, this hurricane season has been one of the most active in the Atlantic Basin in recorded history. There have been a high number of named storms, category 3 or higher storms, and overall hurricane days, and the season is not even over (Resnick, 2017; Erdman, 2017).
On top of that, Puerto Rico’s mounting debt crisis has left the island in a vulnerable position. In response to the island’s $70+ billion debt, the Puerto Rican government laid off thousands government employees over past years in order to save on salaries and pensions. The potential unintended consequence was an anemic and uncoordinated government with limited capacity for an efficient recovery. Additionally, public and private sector layoffs and an otherwise grim job market forced tens of thousands of working-age adults to leave the island in search of better opportunities. As a result, the population left behind was smaller, poorer, and older with higher rates of chronic diseases.
Today, it is estimated that 46 percent of the Puerto Rican population live below the federal poverty line, as compared to 15 percent in the 50 U.S. states (Kaiser, 2017). Worse yet, 35 percent of Puerto Rican adults report being in fair or poor health, as compared to only 18 percent in the rest of the U.S. Puerto Rico’s older, poorer, and sicker population means that the costs of Hurricanes Irma and Maria have been high, and recovery will continue to be slow (Kaiser, 2017).
When Irma and Maria struck, I knew I had to help the ailing island. Thankfully, there were numerous Mailman faculty, staff, and students looking to aid recovery as well. Dr. Diana Hernández, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences, and I sat down with Gary Reback, an MPH student, and discussed potential fundraising efforts, policy responses, and aid missions. We decided to support an ongoing congressional letter writing campaign by the National Puerto Rican Agenda, which has called for an extended waiver for the Jones Act, a 1920 law that requires all goods transported between the U.S. and port cities to be carried on ships owned and operated by Americans, along with additional recovery efforts for the island, including consideration of an aid package (Denis, 2017). Students at our Black and Latinx Student Caucus were also looking to get involved, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to collaborate. Consequently, we set up laptops in the lobby of the Allen Rosenfield building and at student events, making it easy for students and visitors to send a letter in support of increased Puerto Rico relief. Through this effort, we collected over 175 signatures.
Additional efforts are underway to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, but the island has a long recovery ahead so we will need others to continue calling on their congresspeople to challenge their officials for continued support. My personal connection to Puerto Rico inspired action, but every U.S. citizen has a collective responsibility to the island. In the meantime, I will continue to do what I can to help my family and friends on the island through advocacy, aid, and supporting the development of a stronger, more resilient Puerto Rico.
Daniel Carrión is a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences’ Climate & Health Program. Among his research interests are climate justice, GIS, health equity, air pollution, heat-related morbidity and mortality, and energy insecurity.
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