Nerves and impasse in the wake of Hurricane Maria

Nerves and impasse in the wake of Hurricane Maria

This post was written by Javier A. Román-Nieves, a first-year student at F&ES.

“Javier, how are your friends and family?” was for a while the question many asked me at Yale F&ES. Every time felt sincere and I appreciated it. Two weeks had not passed before some people found themselves asking it again. Wait, was that the same hurricane? No. First it was Irma skimming Puerto Rico, then Maria. Simultaneously, Mexico, also my home in the past, got hit by two powerful earthquakes and coincidentally at just about two weeks from each other. Having friends and loved ones there too made everything harder for me. I came to cynically kid around with fellow Mexican FESers about just how often we’d find ourselves asking each other similar questions from now on, given the current state of the world. Got a new earthquake? Hey, we got a new Hurricane! Professor, does that new problem set come with a hug?

Around that time, at a session on “bipartisan U.S. leadership” during the Yale Climate Conference, former Secretary of State James Baker sat back, while his friend and host, former Secretary of State John Kerry, leaned forward, trying to “reach out across the aisle” to his Republican counterpart. Both men kept these stances throughout the event. While this went on, everyone’s usual cell-phone checking habit had turned for me into an uncontrollable nervous tic. It intensified unbearably around each NOAA hurricane bulletin, published every two hours at peak frequency while Maria approached Puerto Rico. I was unable to leave my phone still for more than a few minutes at a time during their conversation, let alone in class, before or after.

The session was mostly praise for bipartisanship and centrism, with Senator John McCain even sending in a recorded message in which he invited attendees to watch Ken Burns’s latest ode to the centrist approach (his new documentary about the Vietnam War), and Senator Lindsey Graham, in a separate message, expressing confidence that we can find a way out of the bipartisan impasse over climate change.

Little did anyone imagine that Hurricane Maria, already projected to hit Puerto Rico hours later, would leave behind a different sort of warzone. In less than a single day, a population of 3.5 million was left with its power and communications grid destroyed, its water supply distribution system shut-down, most of its hospitals inoperable, more than ten main bridges completely collapsed, tens of thousands of homes left without a roof, many country roads destroyed or eroded beyond usability and all airports rendered useless because their air traffic control radars had also been brought down. In many ways, it turned out to be like a perfect one-day military strike (no wonder generals on the ground were so struck). My hometown had basically been completely destroyed and everyone had been left alive to deal (and die) through the dire situation. A month later, little has changed.

Meanwhile, Kerry and Baker wrestled on, in and around the latter’s carbon tax proposal. In the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Kerry asked whether all these increasingly powerful storms could sway Republicans in Congress towards finally recognizing climate change and taking urgent action. Baker’s response in between the lines was an obvious “No.” As the audience looked on, it all reminded me of the dinosaur duel on Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in Disney’s 1940 “Fantasia” (check how that turned out for them in the end).

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast the day after the conference ended, at 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 20. As the center of the system traveled along at merely 12 miles per hour, the wait was nerve-wracking, to say the least. Contrary to the relative suddenness of a tornado or to the brief surprise of an earthquake, hurricanes usually drag on for hours or even a whole day or more depending on their translational speed and if they become stationary systems. Maria, as a meteorologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research told Vox, “was as if a 50- to 60-mile-wide tornado raged across Puerto Rico, like a buzz saw.”

It was many a sleepless night after that, especially since all communications collapsed and there was little or no way of getting any news whatsoever from the island, let alone friends or loved ones. This went on for nearly two weeks, just after course registration closed and I thought I’d finally get up-to-date with coursework (I never did). You don’t have to have a Puerto Rican relative — as the truism goes — to understand how this must have played out for each and every one of the estimated 5 million Puerto Ricans living in the states (yes, there are more of us now over here than across the “big water, ocean water” and yes, if added up with those 3.4 million we would be just below the top ten most populated states of the union — do the math for congressional representation).

But regardless of your closeness to or empathy (or lack of) towards Puerto Ricans, the steady stream of disaster porn coming out of the island on Hurricane Maria’s aftermath most probably made it to your news feed (and still is). It apparently didn’t make it to the President’s, who—as it is widely known now — was more concerned with the NFL protests during those crucial first hours after the hurricane than about the unreal catastrophe, as he would later frame it.

As long as it’s not your family or the places you love or grew up in, such images of disaster are always easy to consume. However, their effectiveness to elicit action in the face of climate change policy is questionable, especially when the person in charge of the country talks about death tolls as if they were scoreboard tallies — as Dan Rather put it — moments before free-throwing paper towels at a cast audience of hurricane survivors. Of the many photos from the infamous moment that made it to the memesphere, my favorite (if you can call it that) is one taken behind Trump’s back while he’s tossing the rolls. It frames the golfer-in-chief as any camera would a basketball player shooting from the free throw line on his team’s side of the court: we are merely distant and hopeless spectators of a cheering crowd on the other side of a spectacle. Meanwhile, 58 of the island’s 69 hospitals still faced a dire situation, were lacking power and fuel for their generators.

While entirely on a different category, James Baker’s answer to Kerry’s question about hurricanes and Republicans wasn’t much more comforting than Trump’s failed face-saving farce in Puerto Rico. The underlying issue is beyond scary: it is the face to face pitting of events and their apprehension, the denying of the very cognition of what is happening in the world, of the matter to which language refers to, i.e. of reality itself. This points to an evident collapse of communication and intelligibility, an end of the discussion (any discussion) and that, is one of the many sparks leading to inescapable conflict. How can we extol the virtues of bipartisan compromise and the center when the baseline keeps shifting well beyond the moral compass?

Just as other pressing issues (Baker insistently mentioned health care and migration), the impasse over climate change at the heart of the American agora — which entails the intended removal of current EPA regulations — is tearing the republic at the seams. For Puerto Rico, the total collapse of basic infrastructure in the wake of environmental tragedy and injustice has all but brought down what little remained effective of its government apparatus — already drowned in bankruptcy — rendering it to a mere specter, seen only through the séance of mass media. In more than one way, this is a real and palpable hole in the fabric of United States government over American territory.

Beyond water bottle selfies and from a distance, Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. mainland can only watch the unfolding tragedy in despair, contributing with whatever help their resources can muster. While there is an ocean in between, the changing weather and the implacable movement of the Earth’s crust spare no national boundaries. It may well be a matter of time before the next collapse of the state follows a natural catastrophe in another chunk of US soil, closer to the arenas where gentlemen argue about their differences. While bodies continue to pile up in Puerto Rico’s morgues, the ongoing tragedy proves there has never been a worse time for expected disasters to happen in the U.S.

“Javier, how are your friends and family?”, some dear friends still ask. “They’re OK,” is my answer, which is what they tell me when I ask. They are not really OK. They can’t sleep at night and thousands don’t even have where to sleep anymore. With storms getting stronger and the southern U.S. poised to pay more for the consequences of climate change, one has to wonder how many of our leaders are able to get a good night’s rest. I for sure can’t.

For those interested in donating funds directly to organizations working on the ground and with proven track records two options are recommended:

Proyecto Enlace Caño Martín Peña, a community land trust located within San Juan’s metropolitan area and winner of the 2015-2016 UN World Habitat Award, and Casa Pueblo, a community organization based in the mountain locality of Adjuntas, with more than 30 years’ experience in sustainable development and led by 2002 Goldman Prize recipient Alexis Massol.

Javier A. Román-Nieves is a writer, nature photographer, and Master of Environmental Management candidate (2019) at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.