Puerto Rico still reels from Maria

By ANNA GORDON | March 29, 2018

JHU Forums on Race in America brought three panelists together to discuss the lasting health ramifications of Hurricane Maria on Tuesday. The event was called “Six Months After Maria: Public Health Issues in Puerto Rico” and was the first of the Forums on Race event to take place at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

The discussion was moderated by Yonaira Rivera, a PhD candidate at the School of Public Health. Rivera is a founding member of the Maryland chapter of Puerto Rico Rising, a grassroots organization created by Puerto Ricans abroad who seek to help those on the island dealing with the damage caused by Hurricane Maria. 

The first panelist was Juan Giusti-Cordero, a professor of History at the University of Puerto Rico. Giusti-Cordero experienced Hurricane Maria firsthand and has studied environmental history on the Island. 

The second panelist was Marietta Vazquez, co-leader of the Connecticut chapter of Puerto Rico Rising and a leader of relief efforts for Hurricane Maria. Vazquez helped deliver over 15,000 pounds of medical supplies after the storm. She is also an associate professor of infectious disease at the Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. Vazquez is Puerto Rican and attended the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine.

The third panelist, Antonio Trujillo, is an associate professor of Health Economics at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. His research focuses on Behavioral Economics, particularly in Latin America. 

In her introductory remarks, Rivera described the health crises that occurred after Maria and how it affected her personally as a Puerto Rican.

“Hospitals didn’t have sufficient medical supplies. Disease outbreaks occurred, and many were left isolated due to infrastructure damages,” she said. “I vividly recall the collective sense of despair felt by Puerto Ricans like me who live in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

Trujillo explained that even before Maria, Puerto Rico was already dealing with an economic crisis. He put the estimated $94 billion of damages in the context of the entire U.S. economy. 

“This happened in an economy which has a GDP of $100 billion, $25,000 average income per capita. In an economy that has $123 billion in debt,” Trujillo said. 

Additionally, Trujillo said that the Island was also suffering because many people were leaving for the U.S. mainland. He said that only 40 percent of working-age Puerto Ricans are employed, whereas on the mainland that figure jumps to 60 percent. 

In addition, Puerto Rico was also dealing with an aging population and a high mortality rate for children under five years old. 

Vazquez elaborated on how local government officials were unprepared for Maria. 

“They started with tremendous financial problems. Communication over the Island was simply nonexistent for the first week,” she said. “And you need to understand that many of the government officials that should have come to the aid were victims themselves.”

Vazquez noted that efforts to alleviate the situation were highly disorganized. 

“Well-meant attempts at centralization I think became hindrances to really match the resources and help those in need,” she said. “Life saving supplies were held in ports or in airports or in centralized facilities with good intentions, but then the resources were not used.”

Giusti-Cordero agreed. He elaborated on some of the basic provisions that were not in place. 

“Routine agreements for support by U.S. electric power companies had not been made,” he said. “The sirens for warning about river flooding and storm surge did not work. Satellite radio equipment was not functional. Maintenance of the power grid was probably at an all time low. And no planning existed for emergency food supplies.”

Giusti-Cordero also criticized how the U.S. handled the situation. 

“With the federal government, things have not changed fundamentally since the 1930s,” he said. “On the whole, the golden rule seems to be one to 10. For every dollar of damage there is 10 cents of federal funds. Comparison in proportion is always key.”

Ultimately, while six months have passed since Maria hit Puerto Rico, the public health ramifications are still present. Rivera detailed some of the issues Puerto Ricans still deal with. 

“To this day there are thousands of people without power, without running water and without a roof over their heads,” Rivera said. “Compounded by an already complex economic and social crisis, many have lost everything including their spirit. Suicide attempts have risen over 200 percent. Health care access is increasingly difficult, hundreds of thousands have been forced to leave the Island seeking respite.”

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