After Hurricane Irma made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 and floods deluged the U.S. commonwealth, Natalia Medina stepped out of her apartment in Guaynabo to survey the damage.
The school she once worked in had no roof or walls. An apartment building’s wall had caved in, and she could see into each apartment. The trees were gone.
“One of the great things about Puerto Rico is that it always looks like spring,” she said. “Now, it’s an American winter. Everything is gone.”
Medina said one of her friends took a few days to get to his parents in Lajas. When he arrived, the roads were destroyed, and he had to bike up the mountains only to find his parents without a roof. And with the water tanks gone in either the winds or floods, they had no water.
Natalia Medina’s aunt, IU professor Carmen Medina, said her sister lost her roof. But what was worse was that phone and power lines were down, and no one could contact her for days.
“It was scary,” Carmen Medina said. “We were just waiting and waiting and wondering if she was OK.”
But this was only the tip of the iceberg, she said. She said more rural areas were devastated by the hurricane, and the poorer families there could do little to pay for recovery.
“Entire houses, gone,” Carmen Medina said. “Towns, neighborhoods, completely disappeared.”
Natalia Medina said she was lucky. Her condo was sandwiched between another condo building and a large hill. Her home had little damage, and she did not have to evacuate.
After the floods died down, she was able to board a plane to stay at her aunt’s house in Bloomington. She arrived with aunt's elderly parents Monday.
“The plane was packed, and the plane ride felt endless,” she said. “Getting there was a nightmare, but I was lucky just to have somewhere to go.”
Back in Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that there are still one million people without power. U.S. officials estimate it will take four to eight months to revive the power grid.
FEMA also reported Puerto Rico is low on gasoline and diesel to transport aid. Natalia Medina said she waited nine hours for gas for three days in a row before being turned away by gas station employees who said they had run out.
The Federal Communications Commission reported 89 percent of cell towers are still out of service, and only 45 percent of residents have access to drinkable water. At a news conference Sept. 30, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said two people died in San Juan because there was no diesel or power in hospitals.
Arlene Diaz, an associate professor in the history department at IU, was born and raised in San Juan before moving to Minnesota in 1987. Diaz’s aunt and uncle, both more than 90 years old, lost their home, and so did her cousin. Diaz also did not hear from her husband’s family in Jayuya for three days because phone lines were down.
Diaz said these continuing problems are because FEMA took too long to distribute shipments from ports and bring in aid. She said the problem lies in U.S. control of Puerto Rican ports, customs, communications and economy.
Diaz said Puerto Rico lacks the infrastructure to recover quickly because of how the U.S. profits off of the territory. Puerto Rico’s imports are limited to those from U.S. ships, which levy heavy shipping taxes on Puerto Ricans, she said.
She said Puerto Ricans are also required to pay taxes that are funneled to FEMA, but they still are not getting necessary aid.
When he spoke in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, President Donald Trump told the people, “You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack. We’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico.”
Diaz said in reality the opposite is true. She said this also explains why Puerto Rico is struggling to recover financially.
“U.S. corporations are making hefty profits out of the island,” she said. “Little of that money stays in the island. That explains much of why Puerto Rico is in huge debt.”
Diaz also pointed to the Jones Act, which restricts certain U.S. territories — including Hawaii, Alaska, Guam and Puerto Rico — from bringing in goods from non-U.S. ships.
While Trump waived the act for 10 days, Carmen Medina said it was not enough because it takes six days just for one ship to travel from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico.
She said the waiver was so short because U.S. shipping companies lobbied to stop it because they were losing their usual profits from Puerto Rico.
“Wherever there is inequality, someone is making money,” she said.
Because of the Jones Act and limits on Puerto Rico’s power to form treaties with other countries, they have had to turn away aid, Diaz said. She said Cuba wanted to send doctors and electricians, but the United States said no. Now that Venezuela has offered oil, Diaz said she is worried the United States will say no again.
“We have an economy that benefits the United States but not Puerto Rico,” she said. “We need to revise these laws if we want Puerto Rico to stand up again.”
A Morning Consult poll of 2,200 adults surveyed from Sept. 22 to 24 revealed that almost half of Americans did not know Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.
Natalia Medina said if Puerto Rico is not seen as part of the U.S., the government will not care about its needs as much as it cares about the needs of other states such as Texas and Florida.
Just days after Hurricane Harvey in Texas, 31,000 National Guard members had arrived, and FEMA had supplied 3 million meals and 3 million liters of water, FEMA reported.
Within four days of Hurricane Irma's landfall in Florida, 40,000 federal personnel were on the ground, and 6.6 million meals and 4.7 million liters of water had been supplied.
In Puerto Rico, only 10,000 U.S. personnel had arrived after six days. And much of the food and supplies remained at the port and was not distributed quickly, Natalia Medina said.
Medina said she thinks racism played a role in the inadequate response.
“The government wants to help the white people in Florida, but not the poor, brown people in Puerto Rico,” she said.
Even if 10,000 U.S. personnel landed in Puerto Rico, Medina said she did not see them. And the people she knew in more rural areas of Puerto Rico did not see them either.
“I was in the city and looked around and thought ‘Where were they?’” she said. “There were people in rural areas without food, water, shelter, and where were they?”
Medina said a lot of the food and supplies were sitting at the ports. She said Puerto Rican truck drivers flocked to ports to help distribute them. She knows of one driver who took a boat from another island to help.
But she said U.S. personnel told them to go home for now until they were called back. There was no call back, Natalia Medina said. Instead, she said Puerto Ricans waited for supplies until she finally began to see a few trucks labeled with the words “U.S. Department of Homeland Security” pass her condo.
“It was like they needed to make a big show of the U.S. swooping in to help,” she said. “But we had been waiting, and there were local drivers willing to help the whole time but getting turned away.”
Carmen Medina said the truck incident showed her that the U.S. response was a political statement rather than an act of compassion.
“Where was the compassion?” she said. “Where was the humanity? There was none.”
After Mayor Cruz was critical of the U.S. response to the hurricane, he tweeted saying she must have “been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.”
In an interview with Univision's Jorge Ramos for Al Punto, Cruz said, “This is not about politics. There are people who do everything for a calculative political motive. My only motive is a human motive.”
Natalia Medina said Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico also minimized the damage. She said he only saw the wealthier parts of Puerto Rico instead of poorer, more rural areas that faced the most damage. She said she was frustrated when Trump compared the hurricane to Hurricane Katrina.
“He said we should be proud because only 16 people died,” she said. “But that number isn’t true. And it could have been worse, but this response is definitely nothing to be proud of.”
Carmen Medina said she was sad to hear about people, including Trump, criticizing Puerto Ricans for being passive in the face of adversity.
While Trump tweeted that Puerto Rico was “not able to get their workers to help,” Carmen Medina told another story.
She said the power company workers have been out nonstop trying to bring back electricity. Nurses and doctors are working overtime to treat patients with little supplies. And truck drivers lined up to help.
Natalia Medina said in her own condo building, people who have never spoken to one another before came out to help each other. She said one of her neighbors had a power generator and brought up three refrigerators for the entire condo to use to store food and medicine.
“When aid didn’t come or didn’t come quickly enough, we relied on each other,” she said. “We came out of our homes and shared what we could and supported each other.”