Faculty members speak at special forum on hurricane crisis afflicting Puerto Rico, Caribbean

Katie Balevic

On Tuesday, Puerto Rican faculty members voiced frustration towards the lack of U.S. relief in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean following hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“We matter, not because we are American citizens, but because we are human beings,” said Jossianna Arroyo-Martinez, Latin American and Caribbean literatures and cultures professor.

The panelists spoke during a forum hosted by the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin America Studies at Sid Richardson Hall. 

Psychology professor Francisco Gonzalez-Lima said the projected death tolls underestimate the hurricanes’ true impact. 

“The death toll will not be known for many months,” psychology professor Francisco Gonzalez-Lima said. “Now the priority is the people who are alive and the people who are suffering.”

A mental health crisis will follow the public health crisis as citizens attempt to reassemble their lives with limited resources, Gonzalez-Lima said. About 2.9 million are without electricity, meaning they have no light, clean water or food storage, Gonzalez-Lima said. 

“Most of the hospitals are running on generators with limited fuel,” Gonzalez-Lima said. “There are no physicians available, and if they are available, they don’t have the resources.”

The slow response to the crisis traces back to the American acquisition of Puerto Rico, said Monica Jimenez, assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies.

“Puerto Rico was never really intended to be part of the U.S.,” Jimenez said. “Being on the island means that you are disenfranchised from the nation and federal rights that we (in the U.S.) are privy to.” 

Jimenez said the United States’ relationship with Puerto Rico is still colonial in nature. 

“When push comes to shove, Congress will implement very colonial measures in its interest,” Jimenez said. “A colonial structure will be the guiding principle of how we move forward … in terms of rebuilding the island.” 

Other panelists said the U.S. would respond differently if the mainland was affected, such as when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston.

“If the hurricane went through Manhattan or Washington, things would be very different,” said Eduardo Lalo, a Puerto Rican writer who is affected by the hurricanes. “This says a lot about humanity in this country. It’s a question of the morality of politics.” 

Education professor Angela Valenzuela, who attended the event, said the U.S. is obligated to help because its emissions contribute to global warming that exacerbated the hurricanes.

“We should be thinking about it as our own self-interest because they’re feeling the impacts of our own pollution through emissions,” Valenzuela said.