The Next Shock Wave in Puerto Rico

What Hurricane Fiona means for Puerto Rico’s independence movement

A man walks through the flooded neighborhood of Juana Matos in Catano, Puerto Rico, on September 19. (AFP / Getty)

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For the forthcoming November issue of The Atlantic, the author Jaquira Díaz wrote about the ongoing impact of Hurricane María on Puerto Rico. On Sunday—two days before the fifth anniversary of María—another hurricane, Fiona, made landfall on the United States commonwealth. I spoke with Díaz about the significance of both disasters, and how they feed into the growing call for Puerto Rico’s independence from the U.S.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


‘All Too Familiar’

Five years after Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, the Caribbean island archipelago (and United States commonwealth) is reckoning once again with the wrath of a violent storm. On Sunday, Hurricane Fiona left 1.5 million people in Puerto Rico without electricity; now, three days later, less than one-third of those people have had their power restored.

For many Puerto Ricans, both on the islands and abroad, Fiona signifies more than a bleak coincidence of timing. It will almost certainly be a major setback for the nation in its already sluggish recovery from María—a disaster whose death and destruction were exacerbated, many argue, by American political neglect. As Díaz writes, “María was not just a natural disaster; it was a political event that, I believe, is provoking a historic shift.”

I emailed with Díaz today about the impact of the hurricanes and what they mean for Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S.

Kelli María Korducki: It’s striking that Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico just two days before the five-year anniversary of Hurricane María. Apart from the poignant timing, why are some people drawing comparisons between the two?

Jaquira Díaz: To me, watching the devastation from the United States has been almost exactly like watching Hurricane María. I still have not heard from all of my family. Some of the people I’ve heard from don’t have power or water. For some of us, this feels all too familiar—knowing that our families are experiencing this devastation while much of the U.S. seems more interested in the [British] royal funeral, putting our trust in local Puerto Rican nonprofits and mutual-aid groups because we don’t know if the aid and money we send will actually make it to our people. I’m finding it hard to even put this into words. No one should have to live like this.

Kelli: In your article, you write that you’ve visited Puerto Rico a number of times since María. How would you characterize the degree of recovery from that disaster? What went right and what went wrong?

Díaz: Everyone I know in Puerto Rico, in pueblos like Comerío and Yabucoa and Vieques, feels let down. Five years later, I still see blue tarps on the roofs of houses as I drive around—the evidence of neglect is all over the archipelago. I mean, why doesn’t Vieques have a hospital, five years later, when we know what happened after María and we’ve been in the middle of a global pandemic for years? Yesterday I was part of a panel where a Puerto Rican professor showed us photos outside his home, where there are still downed power lines five years later.

What went wrong? The Trump administration’s lack of response, and deliberate blocking of relief funds, for starters. To this day, Puerto Rico has not received all the hurricane-relief funds it was entitled to after Hurricane María, which was in 2017. And the lack of a response from FEMA, with no real structured emergency plan to distribute suministros to the people who needed aid; emergency supplies sat in warehouses and were left abandoned. Many people who received aid or supplies got it from local community mutual-aid groups.

And of course the Fiscal Control Board, or la junta as they are known to us, whose members have chosen austerity rather than recovery, prioritized debt repayment rather than the lives of the Puerto Rican people. The people in Puerto Rico shouldn’t have to live in survival mode, and that’s what’s been happening since María. The Fiscal Control Board has made it so that the people have it that much harder.

Kelli: How do natural disasters factor into debates over whether Puerto Rico should become a U.S. state, remain a commonwealth, or sever its ties from Uncle Sam altogether?

Díaz: We’ve seen hurricanes in Puerto Rico before. But with Hurricane María we also saw performances by politicians, sending thoughts and prayers rather than actual help, while deliberately blocking or delaying funding, performances by fake nonprofits using the devastation as a way to scam people out of money. We’ve seen disaster capitalists and rich “venture capitalists” profit from the devastation, without concern for the real people who have to live with the effects of the storm and its mishandling. There are non–Puerto Ricans living in the archipelago right now who use the place as a tax haven while Puerto Rico is drowning in debt and also having to deal with the effects of la junta’s austerity measures. We saw how rather than paying journalists in Puerto Rico to report from within their own communities, foreign reporters came to the archipelago from elsewhere, and rather than paying local contractors, contracts for reconstruction projects were directed toward American companies. We saw, quite literally, how Americans profited from this storm as the Puerto Rican people themselves lost their jobs and were forced to leave to find work.

We haven’t yet seen all the effects of Fiona. But the responses I’ve been getting over the last 24 hours alone, since my article went up on The Atlantic website, have been enlightening. Particularly the response from young people—both in the archipelago and the diaspora—is that support for independence is growing, and that they don’t trust a colonial government to strengthen Puerto Rico’s infrastructure or its ability to survive future climate disasters.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. At the UN General Assembly, Joe Biden said that Russia’s goal is “extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist.”
  2. The Federal Reserve approved a third consecutive interest-rate hike. It’s the Fed’s most aggressive anti-inflation move since the 1980s.
  3. Vladimir Putin called up 300,000 reservists to the Russian military and discussed the possibility of nuclear escalation in the war against Ukraine.

Dispatches

Evening Read
(Vidar Logi)

Björk Is Building a Matriarchy

By Spencer Kornhaber

Midday on a Monday in Iceland's capital of Reykjavík, Björk walked into a coffee shop and gave me a riddle. Just that morning, our interview had been rescheduled to an hour earlier than originally planned so that we could travel to a location unknown to me. Upon arriving at the plant-filled café where we’d agreed to meet, Björk thanked me for my flexibility. “We had to set our clock to the tide,” she said, brightly, as if I would know what that meant.

Björk looked very Björk, which is to say that she looked like no one else on this planet. Her Cleopatra hairstyle had been dyed with strips of white, pink, and mold blue, and the pendulous ruffles of her gown-like overcoat were patterned orange and gray-green. The whole look read as fungal chic, reflecting the earthy aesthetic of her new album, Fossora, which will be out at the end of this month. But she moved through the busy café unbothered, even un-stared-at, by the other patrons. “Icelanders,” Björk explained, “are too cool for school.”

Read the full article.

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P.S.

As Díaz made clear in both our conversation and her magazine story, Puerto Rican roots straddle the ocean. Across continental borders and federal jurisdictions, the boundary distinguishing those on the archipelago from members of its diaspora is a porous one. In that spirit, I would like to recommend the Fania All-Stars.

The All-Stars were the marquee salsa collective assembled by the New York City label Fania Records in the late 1960s, and it elevated masters such as Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, and Héctor Lavoe to international superstardom. A number of 1970s live performances by members of the group can be found on Fania Records’ YouTube channel. It’s all great, but the concert footage of the Puerto Rico-born Lavoe crooning his signature song, “Mi Gente”—a performance that, for many reasons, makes me tear up nine times out of 10—is a fantastic place to start.

—Kelli

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.