CRISIS FORGOTTEN: HURRICANES IN THE CARRIBEAN

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by Zara Williams-Nicholas 

This year’s Atlantic hurricane season has been devastating, with consequences for the Caribbean and the United States. Since the start of the season in June, there have been thirteen storms and eight hurricanes - five hurricanes above Category three (the highest number of major hurricanes since 2010).

The 2017 season is also one of the six recorded years that features two Category 5 hurricanes in the same season - Hurricanes Maria and Irma. A hurricane of category 5 is currently the highest ranked on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale. According to the National Hurricane Center, classifying a hurricane as Category 5 indicates that “Catastrophic damage will occur: A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

The Washington Post indicates that Hurricane Irma is the second most powerful hurricane by wind speed ever recorded over the Atlantic. Irma made landfall on the 6 of September, and affected Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, St Barthélemy, St. Martin, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other small islands in the Eastern Caribbean. Irma also hit Florida and the southeastern United States, where it dissipated after killing 73 people total.

Irma was preceded in late August by Hurricane Harvey, which caused 75 total deaths in Guyana and Texas, and was closely followed by Hurricane Jose.

Jose affected the Northeastern Caribbean islands, Bermuda, the Bahamas, the eastern coast of the United States, and Nova Scotia. Hurricane Maria followed Hurricane Jose by making landfall on Dominica, causing at least 15 deaths and damage to rooftops, power lines and water pipelines. Maria also killed one person in Guadeloupe, then moved towards Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rican death toll is currently at 16, and Maria has limited access to drinking water, vital supplies and gasoline. Only 5% of citizens have electric power. The devastation in Puerto Rico has been described as ‘apocalyptic’. Many individuals have held fundraisers to donate to hurricane relief efforts.

At Swarthmore College, students and student organizations have fundraised for hurricane relief. Swatties for Houston, coordinated by Jaron Shrock '18 and Maria Cuervo '18, hosted a Chili Cook-off fundraiser on September 9th  and raised $1800 for the St. Bernard Project (SBP), and organization with a mission to shrink time between hurricane disaster and recovery. Participants used Swat points, cash or credit to purchase an entrance ticket, where they tasted homemade chilis made in 5-10 pound batches by contestants who also donated $20 each.

Students in ENLACE and SOCA held a vigil on September 28th in honor of all of the Latin American and Caribbean countries affected by natural disasters during the past few weeks. Following the vigil, i-20, in collaboration with SwatDems, MSA, Swarthmore Conservative Society, and Deshi hosted a Global Disasters Awareness Event and Fundraiser in Shane Lounge. Participants learned about the various crises and disasters that have caused damage around the world. Gilbert Guerra ‘19, President of the Swarthmore Conservative Society and an organizer of the event, stated that the focus of the fundraiser was on the hurricanes in the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas, as well as the earthquake in Mexico. Guerra clarified that organizers focused on those regions “because many of our members have roots in these areas.”

Despite frequent donations and overall coverage of the 2017 hurricane season, however, mainstream U.S. and international media has been critiqued for focusing coverage on the mainland U.S. In a news meeting at the Hamilton spectator before Irma made landfall in Florida, a colleague of editor-in-chief Paul Berton wondered whether "maybe hurricane Irma will hit somewhere we care about."

As a result of Hurricane Irma, 95% of Barbuda was demolished, and 50% of the population is now homeless. After Irma hit the Bahamas and Cuba, their agriculture, water supply and telecommunications were severely damaged. More than fourteen countries in the Caribbean were affected, yet most media coverage focused on preparations in Florida and Texas.

The media is accused of ignoring hurricane damage to the Caribbean while heavily covering preparations of the continental United States.  Furthermore, hurricane coverage is usually more urgent for the Caribbean than for the mainland U.S. since storms form in the Eastern Atlantic. Defenders of the media, however, claim that there may not be enough power in the affected Caribbean regions to transmit news effectively. The result is that these communities cannot receive the help they need.

Another rebuttal claimed that U.S. readers relate better to what they understand, so covering non-U.S. islands will have less of an effect. However, Berton notes that at least one Canadian newscast focused exclusively on the preparations being undertaken by the United States while mentioning nothing about the Caribbean.

The stark contrast between coverage of and response to the mainland U.S. versus its territories also calls this rebuttal into question. Hurricane Irma affected the U.S. Virgin Islands before making landfall in Florida, but after Irma hit the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. media outlets were still reporting that the hurricane was ‘set to hit’ the United States.

The FEMA, presidential, congressional and grassroots responses to Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria also varied widely. 31,000 personnel from federal agencies were stationed in Texas before Hurricane Harvey, and 40,000 personnel were positioned in Florida, while only 10,000 were stationed in Puerto Rico. President Trump visited Texas and Florida four days after Harvey and Irma made landfall, respectively, and visited Texas again on September 2, but visited Puerto Rico two weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall. Grassroots donations amassed more than $157 million for Texas, $222 million for Florida, and only $8.1 million for Puerto Rico.

The difference in monetary response was accompanied by Trump’s controversial comments about Puerto Rico. Mayor of San Juan Yulin Cruz responded angrily to claims by White House spokespeople that the situation in Puerto Rico was a “good news story”. Trump, after suggesting that Democrats were telling Cruz to behave nastily to him, said, about Puerto Ricans, that “they want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort”.

Puerto Ricans felt that Trump’s racially coded use of the word “they” was inappropriate since they are also U.S. citizens. Nearly half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, which may have contributed to a lack of relief response.

On September 29th, President Smith offered her support for the Swarthmore community during this time, highlighting that “Devastating hurricanes have wreaked havoc in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and across other Caribbean islands, U.S. states, and Latin American nations; deadly earthquakes in Mexico, and monsoon flooding in South Asia have taken their toll on human lives, property, and infrastructure.”

President Smith listed the Dean of Students Division, including the Office of International Student Services, Intercultural Center, the Black Cultural Center, the Dean's Office, OSE, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and CAPS as resources for affected students, and stated that affected College faculty and staff should contact Carebridge, the College’s 24/7 confidential employee assistance program at 1-800-437-0911.

Smith directed community members who wish to donate or help to suggestions of charitable organizations. Aixa Pomales, director of support services in ITS and herself a native of Guayama, Puerto Rico, has shared the following trusted aid organizations for those who are inspired to help. Organizers of the Global Disasters Awareness Event suggest donating to UNICEF USA, while SOCA executives suggest donating to International Media Corps.

In 2016, 55 students resided in Texas, 37 resided in Florida, and no students resided in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands. 2 students have home addresses in the Caribbean region.