When Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean in early September, the focus was not the damage wrought on the islands but on the fact that it would soon hit Florida.
Then came Jose. Then came Maria. In the span a few of weeks, the Caribbean was devastated by three hurricanes, successively topping each other as the most intense recorded storm in the region. Several islands have been without power, infrastructure has been destroyed—and, most tragically, people have died.
Despite the devastation, the conversation around the hurricanes’ impact on the islands hasn’t strayed too far from the Irma perspective. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Time and time again, when natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or any other form of violence or injustice affects a non-Western country, the response is comparatively quiet.
To justify this way of thinking, one must operate under the idea that the damage dealt to these regions from these disasters isn’t relevant to us as Americans. But this ignores a fact that I am personally familiar with: the many Americans with family and extended family living in the Caribbean.
This can be especially hard to deal with as a student. Najya Williams, a sophomore at Harvard who is a Caribbean-American of Guyanese descent, has worried about her friends and family in the Caribbean for weeks. “They are such small places that rely on much of what was lost, destroyed or damaged, and it’s clear that it’s going to take years for them to fully recover,” she said. Trump, Williams added, is also a constant concern. In the wake of such disasters, that the president “is more concerned about disrespecting a square piece of fabric than the black bodies that are killed, the impending nuclear war he’s starting, and the lives lost and rocked by the multiple hurricanes and flood disasters in the Caribbean” only fuels her worry, a feeling that has been deeply distracting and overwhelming for another student, Carolina Portela-Blanco, a senior at Harvard from Puerto Rico. “It has been tough to concentrate on school and everyday activities,” she said. “Your heart and mind are on family members and loved ones back home.”
“It has been frustrating to see a delayed response from the federal government, compared with efforts done to states in the mainland,” said Portela-Blanco. “The situation has led many to feel like second-class citizens.”
Not only this, but the coverage of the aftermath of the hurricanes has disproportionately focused on what is considered US property. Certain islands, or areas, should not take precedent simply because they are US territories. In the past weeks, I have seen an increase in coverage of the devastation in Puerto Rico; just as it’s finally getting the coverage it deserves, I hope it will also receive the aid it deserves. However, the crisis in Puerto Rico should not just matter to us because it is a US territory. The US Virgin Islands, another US territory devastated by the hurricanes, is being virtually ignored even with its status, said Taylor Ladd, a senior at Harvard from the US Virgin Islands. “What’s hard is that the US Virgin Islands are not getting the same media coverage as Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico are,” she said. “We have over 100,000 US citizens in the territory, yet while Irma was hitting, our small island’s newscasters were saying that the storm wouldn’t make landfall on US soil until later in the week. The lack of media coverage makes it hard to get as many donations, and fewer donations means a slower recovery.”
So what does it mean if we offer aid and coverage to one and not the other? Why do we so often focus on the status of Americans after these tragedies instead of offering support to anyone impacted by a disaster in any way we can? We cannot and should not care about Puerto Rico only because of its relation to the United States. Puerto Rico is more than just a US territory. It is a flourishing island full of strong people, home to music like reggaeton that has influenced artists across the United States, to food like savory, crispy mofongo, as intense in flavor is it is in culture.
Puerto Rico is full of life and beauty. To consider it as just a US territory is to do it a dishonor. To limit our sorrow and sympathy to certain countries reflects on whom we deem important and whom we do not. Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Dominica, and the other islands affected by the storm matter. They matter because of their people: rich and vibrant citizens who care about their families, their neighbors, and their land. These islands are more than just tourist destinations, and they are more than just their pretty beaches. They are countries—important ones.
We should care about them just as we would care about any tragedy in the Western world. We need to remember the Caribbean, all of the Caribbean, which has been affected by the hurricanes—because right now, it needs our help.
This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at [email protected].