Irma lands a heavy blow on Puerto Rico

Oct. 2017 PR hurricane Jose Jimenez:GettySoon after hurricane Irma devastated islands in the Caribbean and parts of Florida, Socialist Action reporter Ernie Gotta interviewed Omar Pérez Figueroa about the effects of the storm on Puerto Rico. Pérez, a native of Puerto Rico, is a member of the Juventud Hostosiana, the youth group of the Hostosian National Independence Movement. He is an investigative analyst on climate and water quality and a doctoral student at the University of California Irvine School of Social Ecology.

Socialist Action: As another hurricane develops behind hurricane Irma, what role does climate change have on the powerful storms generated in the Atlantic?

Omar Pérez: Scientific data from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) suggests that climate change is increasing ocean temperatures. This change in temperature increases hurricane strength.

Nevertheless, the Puerto Rican government and society have yet to recognize this relationship. It was not until 2016, and with the help of the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council (PRCCC), that the Puerto Rico Senate tried to pass a bill to establish Puerto Rico’s public policy towards climate change. The bill was never passed. It was defeated in part thanks to the politicians’ lack of recognition of climate change.

Most of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure is along the coast, which makes the topic of climate change very relevant. This infrastructure includes airports, hospitals, universities, water treatment plants, and power plants. It is a scientific concern that from the list previously mentioned only a few government entities have plans to address climate change impacts (the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources of Puerto Rico).

SA: Small islands like Barbuda and St. Martin have been destroyed. Fortunately, Puerto Rico did not face a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. Yet over a million Puerto Ricans (70% of the population) were left without power and over 150,000 lacked potable water. Can you discuss how the exploitation of Puerto Rico by U.S. capital has made the island more vulnerable to natural disasters?

O.P.: The perfect example for this is the cabotage law. Under the Foraker Act of 1900, United States government determined that the only merchant marine that Puerto Rico could use to receive or send merchandise abroad was that of the U.S. This has a direct impact in our economy, because the U.S merchant marine is one of the most expensive in the world.

This is also an issue of concern, because if for any reason the port of Jacksonville, Fla.—which is the port we receive our merchandise from—were to close, the island would be at a standstill. Puerto Rico imports 90% of its products (food, clothing, cars, among others) from there. Just this week (Sept. 10, 2017) the Jacksonville port was closed because of Hurricane Irma. And so, Puerto Ricans were freaking out.

Finally, the U.S. Congress had to issue a standstill on the cabotage law, so Puerto Rico could function. In the final analysis, however, we are at the mercy of the U.S. government when it comes to the cabotage law. They will enforce it when they deem it more convenient.

SA: Cuba faced a direct hit by the hurricane. Yet Cuba is largely seen as being able to bounce back quickly from such disasters compared to its neighbors in the Caribbean and in the U.S. What can we learn from the way Cuba deals with hurricanes?

O.P.: I think a very distinctive trait of the Cubans is their solidarity. Their education system is built so kids at an early age start thinking as collective. This is very different from the U.S education model, which focuses on the individual. If we extrapolate the previous argument, in the occurring of a hurricane we have the Cuban society working together towards the same goal, the country’s recovery. But on the contrary, in other regions where solidarity is not a stronghold, you have speculators trying to get richer at the expense of others’ suffering.

Another aspect we can learn from the Cubans is their recognition of their geographical location. They are very aware that because of their location they are very likely to get hurricanes and they are prepared for them, they have plans of mitigation, climate change impact, etc. We do not have to reinvent the wheel, we must be prepared and implement the plans that we have. Moreover, we have to take up the challenge to convince politicians and society that we are not currently prepared, and we need to be, because hurricanes will keep occurring.

SA: What role do you see the people of Puerto Rico playing in the struggle for a sustainable earth?

O.P.: We need to be like the salmon, we need to keep on pushing, push the climate change agenda, because climate change and its consequences are real. As a friend of mine in the U.S. said once, “The sea level rise does not care if you are Republican or Democrat.” There is strong wisdom in his words; you can argue all you want whether climate change is real or not, but you cannot dispute the catastrophic consequences.

No change is a small change; we all have an impact. Because Puerto Rico is an island, we are feeling the climate change impacts more quickly. This is already triggering communities to be prepared, because they know the government will do little to help them. Without knowing it, these communities are developing management plans and driving climate change acknowledgement, which I know we all can learn from.

Photo: Jose Jimenez / Getty Images