Hurricane Maria’s Victims have been Mocked all Along
By Rev. Dr. Damaris D. Whittaker
We had to fly my aunt to Buffalo, New York, to undergo emergency surgery. Which shouldn’t be newsworthy but it very much is because she is diabetic and was unable to access insulin for five months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017. Two years later, health care here remains in ruins. For my aunt, when her feet became swollen and turned black, our family pooled resources to fly her to a hospital in Buffalo for emergency surgery, which included the amputation of six toes.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans continue to get sicker as they continue to lack access to the basics of health like safe water, medications and medical facilities. Thousands of Puerto Ricans have needlessly suffered, and many have died as a result. The on-going health care travesty in Puerto Rico isn’t a healthcare debate — it’s a healthcare debacle due to the lack of moral leadership and on-going negligence.
Most recently, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, sparked massive protests as leaked documents revealed crass mockery of Hurricane Maria’s victims, like when he referred to overcrowded morgues after the hurricane by saying, “Don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” His behavior is abhorrent. But it is clear to me that Hurricane Maria’s victims have been mocked all along. From that first roll of paper towels lobbed by President Trump, to Vice President Pence launching the “Latinos for Trump” initiative in Miami this summer, on the very same day he visited the National Hurricane Center to promote new storm surge warnings (with a promise to send warnings to the island of Puerto Rico for the first time.)
I have led multiple missions to the Puerto Rico post Maria, as my church and community invest in sustainable models of recovery and reconstruction efforts. Immediately after the hurricane, we began by providing solar lights, water filters, food and other essentials with private funds. Then our trips became about planting food with local communities, fixing roofs and homes for those who did not qualify for FEMA aid. Our work has now moved onto economic development efforts with our partner Projecto Matria. Our most recent effort this summer was a medical mission trip where we organized 31 medical providers from Puerto Rico to provide services to several communities in need.
We are doing our best to fulfill a role meant for politicians and policy-makers, not the pews. Rebuilding health infrastructure and systems is complicated and costly. Many of our best doctors have left the island. People like my aunt find themselves in costly emergency situations with their lives and limbs at risk, and their families under great emotional and financial strain. Thousands are watching relatives experience preventable health problems that are costly and cruel and will forever alter the lives of those we love.
I am a pastor. If I had the opportunity to meet with our nation’s president, I would put on my clerical collar and call him to his knees to say their names. To say the names of the nearly 3000 Puerto Rican lives lost. To say the names of those who continue to needlessly suffer. I would call on Mr. Trump to say my aunt’s name.
This on-going situation is slow slaughter by neglect, as the U.S. administration and the president regard certain U.S. citizens’ lives as expendable as they ignore ongoing suffering. Rather than address unmet critical needs, we get presidential tweets that mock this deep distress: “The best thing that has happened to Puerto Rico is Donald Trump.” The president is leaving behind longer-lasting destruction than Hurricane Maria and must be held to account for continuing to withhold critical aid to fellow Americans.
We Puerto Ricans will continue to affirm our common humanity and do all that is in our power to help those who continue to suffer. But Congress must take action. It is long past time that the funds allocated for hurricane relief be fully paid out, so that Puerto Rico can finally rebuild its healthcare system and fill the moral void left by current leadership.
Rev. Dr. Damaris D. Whittaker is Senior Minister, Ft. Washington Collegiate Church, New York City; she was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico.