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Puerto Rico Panel, President Rodriguez Host Reflection on Hurricane Maria

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Roughly 3,000 Puerto Ricans, American citizens, died due to the category four terror of Hurricane Maria on September 20, 2017. Since that day, the event has spurred much speculation, economic analysis, and hotly debated opinions on the social and economic state of Puerto Rico.

    On January 28, in an old auditorium in downtown Albany, the President of the University at Albany, Dr. Havidán Rodriguez, took the stage to introduce a discussion on the aftermath of Maria.

“As you know, the impact and outcomes of hurricane Maria are devastating for the population of 3.3 million American citizens,” Rodriguez said. “Disasters are socially constructed events. A number of factors… exacerbated the disaster situation in Puerto Rico.”

    President Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican native, explained that Puerto Rico was in turmoil long before the hurricane hit.

“Prior to Hurricane Maria, the island was already characterized by a severe economic crisis with major structural problems, including a massive debt- the result of a series of events that began escalating in 2006.”

    “Unemployment, poverty, government debt defaults, a deteriorating health care infrastructure, and a massive migration from the island to the mainland: La Crisis Boricua.”

Or, the Puerto Rican Crisis. Many U.S. citizens were not aware of the declining state of Puerto Rico, and it was not until recently that the spotlight has shown on the Puerto Rican government, in light of this natural disaster.

    With Dr. Havidán Rodriguez’ opening remarks in mind, the panel took some questions.

    I asked the panel how they felt about President Trump’s remarks concerning Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

    George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health has cited the total death toll around 2,975 deaths, and yet the President of the United States has insisted repeatedly that the deaths were between 8 and 16 people. My question was: Why do you think the President has insisted on such low numbers?”

    Robert Griffin, dean of the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC) at the University at Albany, answers:

“It’s a political reason. If you minimize the consequences and particularly the fatalities, which is a very dramatic number, that minimizes the whole sense of the spirit and severity of what happened, and takes the pressure off… it’s a combination of ignorance and political motivation.”

    The media, must also take some blame, said Irwin Redlener, who established the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Mailman School of Public Health.

“Journalists do not know how to cover recovery. Once the cameras go away, you’re left to an occasional feature about families not doing well,” said Redlener. “One of the things I hope for is that American journalists get a lot more comfortable covering recovery… It’s difficult. You have to follow the money.”  

    In 1917, Congress passed the Jones Act which granted Puerto Ricans born after April 25, 1898, U.S. citizenship. The Puerto Rican House of Delegates voted unanimously against it. Puerto Rico has had a long history of colonization under which they have been exploited and forced to comply with larger governments. Now, 122 years later, students at the panel expressed discontent with the federal government’s relationship with Puerto Rico.

    Xavier Cruz, an 18 year old student at UAlbany, took to the microphone to address the panel: “I have family on the island, I have family on the mainland. I volunteer at the Puerto Rican-Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute,” said Cruz. “I have relatives who have cancer and serious illnesses who went months without treatment in hospitals that don’t have electricity.”

“There is very little historical precedent to suggest that Puerto Rico will receive more aid from the federal government, or that the U.S. has any interest in the welfare of Puerto Ricans on the mainland and on the island. I want to ask you… When did the word liberation leave our vocabulary when talking about this discussion?” That final question was met with applause from the audience gathered in the auditorium.

    With so much dissent among the United States government and so much speculation about where the relief funds are actually going, with photos of abandoned pallets of water on runways and tweets from the U.S. President that are often colored with disdain, how can we truly know what the real situation is in Puerto Rico?

    The panel on Monday was titled, “Lessons Learned from Hurricane Maria.” That night, the audience learned that the relationship with and the situation in Puerto Rico is incredibly complex.

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