Hurricane Maria: September 2017
Hurricane Maria spread wreckage across the Caribbean as she sped toward the island of Puerto Rico. The damage was truly catastrophic in Dominica, where the storm basically flattened scores of homes and flooded others. The photograph below shows just how terrible the damage was there.
Guadeloupe, Martinique, Haiti, and the Virgin Islands also suffered widespread damage. But Maria is almost all about Puerto Rico. The storm made landfall there near Yabucoa on the southeast coast at 10 AM on September 20, 2017. The island was still recovering from Hurricane Irma, which devastated the nearby Virgin Islands and passed to the north of Puerto Rico, but still caused widespread power outages. After Irma, Puerto Rico sent supplies to the Virgin Islands, including water and tarps.
At landfall, winds were clocked at 155 mph, a strong category 4 storm. After landfall winds weakened but the eyewall grew during replacement leading to a larger area of damaging winds. Rainfall caused significant damage, up to 1 meter (38 inches) of rain fell in mountainous areas and much of the eastern half of the island received over 0.4 meters (15 inches). The ground was already saturated as a result of rain from Irma and so this water had nowhere to go. In one notable incident, floodwaters released from the La Plata dam rose up to 4.5 meters (15 feet), caused extensive flooding, and trapped several thousand people. The Guayataca dam was deemed to be at risk of collapse and tens of thousands of people had to evacuate. Flash flooding, mudslides, and landslides were common in mountainous areas, cutting off whole communities. A month after the storm only 640 kilometers (400 miles) of 8000 kilometers (5000 miles) of roads were passable, making getting relief to citizens difficult. Maria destroyed a total of 70,000 homes and damaged up to 300,000 others.
Please take a look at the stunning before and after images from The Guardian, "Puerto Rico six months after Hurricane Maria: then and now" highlighting the impacts and recovery in Puerto Rico. Note that although repairs were completed, most houses pictured have only temporary fixes and blue tarps for roofs.
One of the lessons from Maria was the failure of the power grid. The Puerto Rico power grid was antiquated and extremely vulnerable to a storm like Maria. Lack of funding and years of mismanagement and failure to maintain equipment, combined with damage from previous storms left the grid extremely vulnerable. The national power company, the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority (PREPA) was over $7 billion in debt when it filed for bankruptcy months before Maria. Immediately after the storm, the power grid went down for the whole island, leaving 3.4 million people without electricity. Even hospital generators failed. Almost all cell and landline service was down. 90% of the island was still without power a month after the storm, and two months later 1.5 million people were without power. In some places, it took 11 months to restore power! After Maria, the federal government set aside $2 billion to fix the power system, but PREPA has been in bankruptcy negotiations for the last two years, and an earthquake in 2020 again led to widespread blackouts, so problems persist.
This video exposes the severity of the poor response to Maria in Puerto Rico
Drinking water was also hit hard by Maria. Up to 50% of citizens had no running water for several weeks. Sewage treatment plants were inoperable for months. Maria wiped out 80 percent of the crop value in Puerto Rico, about $780 million, destroying sugar cane and fruit trees, coffee plants, and vegetables. The storm was particularly hard on trees, ripping off leaves, and stripping bark. One farmer described losing every single one of his 14,000 plantain trees. Row upon row of crops were destroyed. The island imports about 85% of its food, leaving it very vulnerable to a devastating storm like Maria, however before the storm small farming operations were increasing as were local farmers' markets. The loss of croplands combined with the slow response left citizens without food, hungry, and rationing canned goods. After Maria hit, a Federal Emergency was declared and FEMA assistance began with daily relief flights. The Navy deployed numerous ships to help in the relief. However, the scale of the disaster was daunting, hampered by poor communication and difficulty getting assistance to people who needed it, and the government has been criticized for underestimating the severity of the crisis. All in all the storm caused $90 billion in damage.
Estimating the death toll from Maria has been difficult. Officially, 64 people died as a direct result of the storm. However, power cuts, lack of drinking water, food shortages, and the extremely slow governmental response were responsible for far more deaths, especially of people with underlying health problems. But since some of these deaths might have occurred without the storm, the only way to estimate the number is by comparison with mortality rates in previous years. Numerous universities and investigative reporters have made these comparisons and the estimates are staggering. Up to 3,000 people are thought to have perished in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, exceeding fatalities in Katrina. Many citizens moved to the mainland US, especially to Florida. Because Puerto Rico is a US Territory and citizens pay some federal taxes including Medicare and social security, the federal government has been blamed for the slow response, and for not providing more immediate relief and long-term financial aid to the island. The response was so inadequate and suffering so significant that the international relief organization Oxfam intervened and provided aid to the island. Although the storms, the location, and the nature of the damage were very different and comparisons are difficult, the response (or lack of) to Maria resembled Katrina to many. And because the majority of people impacted by both of these tragedies were minorities, African Americans in the case of Katrina and Hispanics in the case of Maria, there have been charges of environmental racism in both cases. Certainly, the responses to Harvey and Sandy were far superior. Even now, three years after the storm, blue tarps still dot rooftops all over the island, memories of Maria.