Adiel and I have been working together to consider the topic of disaster relief, with a focus so far on Puerto Rico, but an intent to extend our scope to New Orleans (with some related scheduled interviews). In this comparison, we hope to uncover some of the nuances and specificity related to culture, politics, economics, and other broad systems and relationships related to a place that are exacerbated by disaster.
We practiced Ideo’s suggested “5 Why’s” in an interview with Carlos, a Masters of Architecture Candidate at MIT, born and raised in Puerto Rico, and now studying in here in Cambridge. The questions are often simple and seemingly obvious, so we preface this with an acknowledgement of the possible offense that such an oversimplification can bring. Still, the reductive and obvious questions, when compiled, do expose the complexity of systemic issues surrounding the disaster, and how inextricable these issues are from the history and memory of the island.
Here is a summarized breakdown of the questions and responses:
S: Why do you think Hurricane Maria was so devastating to Puerto Rico?
C: No one in anyone’s lifetime had seen anything like this. We had seen hurricanes, but there was never something so big–a Category 5. And it went through the entire center of the island, diagonally. It was completely without precedent. Not even in my grandparent’s lifetime. There was a fading collective memory of what these hurricanes are capable of. There was an immediate hysteria–supermarkets were empty–and in Puerto Rico, where all things were imported, the supermarkets only last a week. No one was ready.
S: Recognizing that this is a broader human question, and that it does not need to necessarily be specific to Puerto Rico, why do you think no one was ready for this?
C: It is a broader question, but I think this is culturally specific to Puerto Rico, too. We were not ready because of our authorities, and what our authorities do. We can’t expect people to consider these things on their own accord. People have other things they are worrying about. But we can’t forget about them, either. Hurricanes are not the 100 year flood. This one was maybe a 100 year flood. But still, even those happen.
S: Why do you think the authorities were not preparing people?
C: There’s an economic crisis. Everything that goes into preparing for a disaster costs money. The hurricanes feel intangible. Also, to what extent to politicians care? They are also entrapped in the same culture. It is hard to consider hurricanes when there are also other things to consider–making new jobs, for instance. There are so many other concerns.
S: Recognizing this is a very complicated question, why is Puerto Rico dealing with an economic crisis?
C: It is a really complicated question. A lot relates to our relationship with the US. We rely on it for some many things. Puerto Rico was a manufacturing economy–that collapsed when big companies at home left for abroad. Pharmaceuticals found it was cheaper to produce elsewhere. There were also–and I’m not completely sure about how this works–weird bonds. Foreign investors would buy bonds in Puerto Rico for high profit to them, but would bring huge debt to us. Also, the Fiscal Control Board oversees the financial power of the governor. There’s no autonomy, no say in our own foreign policy. And the Board, appointed by Congress, controls our spending, setting a high percentage of government to go toward paying off an unpayable debt.
S: Why is Puerto Rico in this relationship with the US?
C: It comes back to the Spanish American War in 1898. Puerto Rico was about to be an independent state. But then the US invaded Puerto Rico right when the Spanish would have freed us. It became a territory. It helped the geopolitical strategies of the US. It had a good position; it was a gateway to the Caribbean and a good military post. Then, in the 1940s or 50s the UN was pressuring the US because the US still had colonies when no one else did, so the US had to legalize it. They gave Puerto Ricans citizenship and labeled us as a “Commonwealth.” But that didn’t do anything for Puerto Rico. The governor only has control over local or trivial issues. And now we owe the US money.
This process, in some senses, brought what we had expected: the “why’s” exposed broader oppressive systems (economic, political, historical) that are, in many ways, responsible for the response to the disaster. Yet this, I think, comes with less clarity than the transcription suggests, because what is not mentioned are interviews we have done which differ in their responses to similar questions. While these differences are not drastic, they do (rightly, we think) suggest that the linear thinking of the five consecutive “why’s” is also reductive–that this cannot be clearly traced to just one historical condition, but that these “why’s” present one of many possible paths that could have been followed by this interview. We intend for this to suggest the depth of the issue of post-disaster relief in Puerto Rico while not defining it, and not yet beginning to uncover the breadth.