Decimated, Puerto Rico Flounders in Disaster


Talia Protos

Sabrina Raouf ’18, Puerto Rican student and Student Organization President, and Artea Brahaj ’19 take part in an S.O. bake sale that gave its proceeds to victims of natural disasters, namely Puerto Ricans.

On Wednesday, September 6, 2017, Puerto Rico, among other areas in the mid-Atlantic region, was hit by Hurricane Irma, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic. Just two weeks later, Hurricane Maria brought a second wave of despair and destruction to the region.

For years, Puerto Rico has struggled against poverty. On May 3 of 2017, with a 123 billion-dollar debt, Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy. In 2016, 43.5% of the population lived in poverty, including almost 85% of Puerto Rican children. Without money to afford commodities or improve basic infrastructure, both hurricanes have exacerbated an already dire situation to a point some have called “apocalyptic.”

“Puerto Rico has always faced adversity, and many times we bounce back.”

As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Ricans are considered United States citizens. They do not, however, have the same rights as those who live in actual states. While a Floridian can vote in Presidential elections, for example, Puerto Ricans can only vote in presidential primaries. While Puerto Rico does have representatives in the House, they have no voting power and have no representation in Senate. Though seemingly trivial, caveats like these are what put Puerto Rico at a disadvantage both economically and politically.

In the first week after Hurricane Maria, most of the island was without electricity, clean water, or food resources. What scarce resources they had—only some food and water—were moved around the island via shipping trucks. Getting food from off the island, however, was another story.

In the wake of World War I, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act, was imposed to improve patriotism in the U.S. The act requires that all goods shipped over water between U.S. ports be transported on American ships built in the U.S., owned by American citizens, and crewed by American citizens and permanent residents.

In effect, the Jones Act makes shipping between U.S. ports cost millions more than it otherwise would, especially for areas like Puerto Rico. Because Puerto Rico is a collection of islands, the vast majority of commerce consists of shipping over water, costing the already impoverished an estimated 1.7 billion dollars in lost commerce per year, according to Time Magazine.

“Puerto Rico has always faced adversity, and many times we bounce back. However, when not one, but two massive hurricanes decimate the island within a week of one another, in addition to the political and economic policies that are in place, our resilience as a People is severely tested,” lamented senior and Student Organization President Sabrina Raouf, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “My island is destroyed.”

Puerto Ricans’ rights as United States citizens are undermined and inhibited at every turn. As found in a poll by USA Today, less than half of U.S. citizens believe that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth. As a result of this ignorance, Puerto Rican issues are denied attention, and while they struggle to maintain order, the government turns a blind eye, leaving its citizens to handle the overbearing impositions of the Jones Act, bankruptcy, and the lack of equal rights.

As for new beginnings, Raouf said, “As tragic as this is, there is a silver lining. Now people are talking about the overbearing colonial policies that have been put in place, such as the Jones Merchant Marine Act, and how to effectively deal with the debt crisis. I pray and hope that my island can bounce back. I know that we can.”