Hurricane Memorial: The United States’ Racialized Response to Disaster Relief

Christina Boyles (christina.boyles@trincoll.edu), Trinity College, United States of America

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. As the strongest hurricane to hit the island since 1928, the storm has caused significant damage—especially to infrastructure including roads, dams, communications networks, the electrical grid and the water supply. With much of the island still without power, and with limited aid coming from the United States, Puerto Rico is being left to deal with a humanitarian crisis on its own. The slow nature of the United States’ response, coupled with Donald Trump’s barrage of tweets, highlight the ways in which colonial narratives are feeding into disaster response efforts. For example, when San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz requested an increase in federal aid, Trump replied, “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort” (@realDonaldTrump). He later went on to claim that Puerto Rico’s need for aid was hurting the federal budget and to claim that Hurricane Maria was not “a real catastrophe” for the island (“Trump compares Puerto Rico to Katrina”). Trump’s victim-blaming behavior highlights both his lack of empathy for the citizens of Puerto Rico and the racial prejudice that undergirds the U.S. colonial enterprise. Although rarely so blatant, such behavior is not new; rather, the United States has an ongoing legacy of racialized disaster relief that is grounded in its colonial endeavors, particularly in Puerto Rico.

According to El Nuevo Día, the most widely-circulated newspaper in Puerto Rico, “El huracán María no superó a San Felipe II según un informe preliminar”, or “Hurricane Maria did not surpass the strength of the San Felipe II Hurricane” (Ortega Marrero). Nevertheless, the two storms bear striking similarities. Both hit the island of Puerto Rico as category 5 hurricane, both crossed the island from the southeast corner and moved through the center of the island to the northwest corner, and both had significant long-term effects on the island.

While coverage of the 1928 storm’s devastation in Florida is prominently displayed in novels and journalistic reports, coverage of the damage in Puerto Rico is almost non-existent in the mainland United States. I argue that the vulnerabilities created by the hurricane of 1928 were pivotal to the United States colonial agenda in Puerto Rico, resulting in a land grab by corporations and government entities that would impede the island's agricultural industry and economy for decades. This is made evident by the fact that the U.S. downplayed effects of the storm, the U.S. implemented policies to hurt small farmers & agricultural workers, and the U.S. denied that their actions caused economic and environmental harm to Puerto Rican citizens.

To make these connections clearer and to bring the stories of the storm’s underrepresented victims back into our cultural memory, I have launched a digital work called the Hurricane Memorial project. This site includes my preliminary research, visualizations of my findings, and interviews with survivors and their family members.

As Florida and the Caribbean start to recover from Hurricane Maria, it is important to note that those living in economically disadvantaged communities will suffer the greatest from the storm’s damage—just as they did in 1928. Aid quickly was rushed to Florida, while the federal government is “killing [Puerto Rico] with inefficiency” (“I Am Mad As Hell”). Such a response demonstrates the ways in which United States’ racialized response to natural disasters is deeply rooted in its colonial enterprise. Failing to address these issues risks reinforcing harmful colonial narratives and causing irreparable harm to communities throughout the Caribbean and the world.


Appendix A

Bibliography
  1. @realDonaldTrump. “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” Twitter, 30 September 2017, 5:26 A.M. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/914089003745468417
  2. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. HarperPerennial, 2006.
  3. “‘I Am Mad As Hell’: San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Criticizes Maria Response.” YouTube, uploaded by NBC Nightly News, 29 September 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41hl5RwfOVc
  4. Ortega Marrero, Melisa. “El huracán María no superó a San Felipe II según un informe preliminar.” El Nuevo Dia [Guaynabo, Puerto Rico], 29 September 2017.
  5. Sharp, Deborah. “Storm's path remains scarred after 75 years.”  USA Today, 4 September 2003. 
  6. Sterghos Brochu, Nicole. “Florida's Forgotten Storm: the Hurricane of 1928.” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2003.
  7. “Trump compares Puerto Rico to Katrina, ‘a real catastrophe.” YouTube, uploaded by USA Today, 3 October 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J18rugiTxoU