Hurricanes are no strangers to Puerto Rico. On that island, where the storms were named for the Saint’s day on which they occurred, most Puerto Ricans can tick off the major storms by heart: San Ciriaco (1899), San Felipe (1928) San Ciprián (1932), Santa Clara (1956), Hugo (1989). Now, sadly María will be added to the list. Over centuries the islanders have developed creative responses and techniques of communal cooperation that have allowed them to cope and survive, but the island’s current political and financial crisis and its problematic political status makes coping with this disaster and plans for a recovery far more difficult.
Wherever they strike, the results of hurricanes are disheartening similar. The terror of wind and water, the tears shed for loved ones, the frustration and pain of crops lost and homes destroyed, the constant discomforts, and the threat of sickness and hunger that follow, are common everywhere, but natural disasters are never natural. They are always the result of what peoples and governments do before and after the event. The hurricanes in Puerto Rico, because of its long and problematic relationship to the United States, are embedded in a specific political and economic context that determines their long-term effects. This will be as true of Hurricane María as it was of all the previous storms.
In fact, a tremendous hurricane was the midwife of Puerto Rico’s birth as a territory of the United States. The San Ciriaco hurricane of 1899, a Category 4 storm, struck while the island was still under military occupation just a year after the Spanish American War. While San Juan was relatively spared, Ponce, the second largest city, and the coffee producing highlands of the island took a major blow. The economy was left a shambles. The coffee crop was lost, as was half of the smaller sugar crop, and most of the food crops. About 3,000 people died directly from the storm, but mortality rates remained abnormally high for a year afterwards. Over 250,000, a quarter of the island’s population, were left homeless and destitute. “Hunger had established its empire,” wrote one observer.
The military governor of the island granted a remission of taxes, and although Congress voted no funds in relief, a tremendous charity program was mounted in the U.S. based on genuine sympathy, but also on the desire by the U.S. government to demonstrate its efficiency and its benevolence to the Puerto Ricans.
But charity had its limits, and in the post colonial Caribbean as with Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria there was a suspicion that the population is lazy and will not help themselves. There was a deep fear among the military governors and the coffee and sugar planters on the island that public assistance to the indigent and homeless would turn the working class into beggars, because the islanders were “a people whose every tendency is in that direction.” So the relief distributed by the Charity Board on the island was given not to the victims, but to the planters, and in order to receive any, workers had to sign contracts that lowered their traditional wages and made them even more dependent.
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