Thud. Slam. The wind is roaring like a train barreling past your window. Water starts pouring in. Towels are sopping wet, buckets are filling, and your roof starts lifting from the tops of the walls. Now, you’re looking up at the grayest, most evil sky you’ve ever seen, with a storm about 15 to 20 times the size of your whole island. As the night passes, you fall asleep, and in the morning, you rise and try to find the people who matter to you most through the debris. You rise every morning for months to find that you’re still without power, sewage is still overflowing in the streets, another school has closed, and the roads are uncrossable. Yet, you continue to rise, hopeful that Puerto Rico will rise tomorrow.
With those scenes running through your mind, it’s not hard to conceive why “Puerto Rico Se Levanta” means so much more than “Puerto Rico will rise” to its natives, or “Borinquens,” explained Victor Silva, on Tuesday with Dr. Aksel Casson, and the two were excited for Silva to return to campus and share what life was like before and after Category 5 storm, Hurricane Maria in September of 2017. To start the evening, Dr. Aksel Casson and Sociology and Anthropology Honorary President Cassidy Leasure, a senior Sociology and Gender/Diversity Studies majors with a Philosophy minor, introduced Say, September 25th. Over 115 students and faculty members piled into Vincent 105 to hear from Silva, a 2016 Interdisciplinary Studies alum who had traveled to Puerto Rico shortly after graduating. Silva, who was able to design his own degree by combining courses in Philosophy, Sociology, and Anthropology, had kept in touch with Dr. Casson. “I was extremely excited about Victor’s talk with us,” Leasure shared. “ To be honest, there was a lot that I didn’t know about the Hurricane and its aftermath. I feel like I was misinformed about what happened in Puerto Rico. After his talk, a lot of my misconceptions were cleared. I believe Victor did an excellent job of being both informative and engaging, and I, like many others, learned a lot from his presentation.”
Silva first wanted to brief the audience on the history of Puerto Rico, in order to give context to why relief efforts have proved to be so difficult. “Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States,” he explained, “which places them somewhere between a state and an independent entity.” The Jones Act of Puerto Rico, passed in 1917, categorizes Borinquens as United States citizens who can fight in the US military, but allows Puerto Rico to have has its own constitution and states Borinquens cannot vote in any elections. The most significant piece of that act, the reason it’s nicknamed the “Law Strangling Puerto Rico,” is because it only allows imports from the United States to come to Puerto Rico. Even in the case of an emergency.
The first emergency, Category 5 storm Hurricane Irma, hit the island, knocking out water supply for three or four days, and knocking out power for ten days. The Borinquens considered themselves lucky compared to the surrounding islands, and formed a Puerto Rican Navy to begin helping its neighbors. Not quite two weeks later, another Category 5 storm hit, and this time, even the “hurricane raided buildings” of Old San Juan weren’t able to withstand its strength. Silva recalls how there truly was a calm before the storm, without even a gentle breeze. Then the storm hit.
When he awoke the next morning, looking down at the street, he saw a 15×20 foot chunk of roof, debris from tin to hundred year old trees to leaves, and entire balconies of cement, concrete, and stone. As he showed pictures of the immediate aftermath, students and faculty in the audience were shocked by how much rubbish and debris surrounded him, wherever he went. “Where your neighborhood was impacted the rubbish in your street. Some had wood, others tin, but all of them had nails and broken glass. I can’t stress how much broken glass was in the streets.” Silva shared, “Where do we start? You just had to pick a spot.” Silva recalls spending days, weeks, and even months going out to clear debris and returning to a wet, hot, and powerless home. Borinquens would light candles to fend off the dark, and spend their evenings thinking of everyone else on the island, with no means of communication as the cell towers had also been destroyed.
In addition to the immediate damage, the unforeseen aftermath continued to mount. With the power out, ATMs didn’t work, so when the bank actually opened, lines went on for blocks. So did lines at gas stations for gas for generators. Even hospitals were without power for days. A curfew became enforced. Dry laws were placed. The grocery stores had limited goods, and since roads were destroyed, redistribution efforts were challenging. Crops and livestock were depleted. Cargo ships with supplies from other countries had to be rerouted since they weren’t from the United States. Schools closed, over three hundred of them, and the “Maria Generation” has been scarred by the devastation.
Puerto Rico had a post-apocalyptic feeling for months, Silva described, as people searched for food, family, work, and more. Though the reported death toll in the media remained relatively low, sickness and deaths because of the aftermath climbed. Flooding was backing up the sewers, bringing up rats and other diseases the island hadn’t seen in decades. The downed lines and caved-in streets kept emergency personnel from responding. The power outage and lack of supplies kept treatable ailments from being treated with oxygen, ventilators, dialysis, and appropriate medical attention. The spoiled food and heat made the sick even sicker. And the death toll is now projected at 3,000 people.
Amidst all the drudgery, Silva wanted to talk about the good, and highlighted a few heroes. He applauded Chef José Andrés who began World Central Kitchen, and served 150,000 meals per day. Andrés later wrote a book titled “We Fed an Island.” He also applauded a non-profit company called Island People Recovery began serving meals, roofing houses with tarps, refurbishing schools, and more.
Silva then offered a question and answer section to see what students and faculty wanted to know. A group of students heading to Puerto Rico for a Service-Learning experience for two weeks in January stayed to ask Silva what to expect. Since Puerto Rico has been declared not to be in a state of emergency anymore, Silva wasn’t sure how the island would progress before the new year. Some people are still without houses, without roofs, or without stable power. With a focus on environmental justice, the students asked about environmental concerns, and Silva directed them to talk with the fishermen. One professor asked where the debris is going and how much still lines the streets. Another asked about systemic racism and a failed government support system affecting relief efforts. To close, Dr. Casson asked Silva what stories we should continue to follow as barometers of progress. “Watch the schools,” Silva concluded hopefully.
Full video of the lecture is below.