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Journal of Hispanic Policy

Topic / Public Leadership and Management

The Real Stars That Shine Above Puerto Rico After Natural Disasters

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico causing widespread destruction, including the total loss of the power grid and potable water systems. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit the island in almost 90 years. “Make no mistake — this is a humanitarian disaster involving 3.4 million US citizens,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said the Monday after Maria hit.

The consequences to the island’s citizens are overwhelming. Yet the U.S. government’s response and media coverage have not captured the extent of the damage. Opinion polls show 52% of Americans believe the administration is not doing enough to restore electricity and deliver food and water.

The Trump’s administration’s immediate recovery efforts in Puerto Rico were perceived negatively due to the President’s patronizing tone and language coupled with the rejection of a Congressional request to waive the Jones Act, an action taken after hurricanes in Florida and Texas to relieve shipping restrictions.

Additionally, the lack of media personnel on the ground providing coverage may have diminished the public and government’s sense of urgency.

Media coverage is the single greatest means of fostering awareness, yet in the case of Puerto Rico it was not as pervasive as in Texas and Florida. Puerto Rico should have received media attention given the high magnitude of damage compared to previous years.

“It was clear television crews were not in place ahead of the storm, despite the fact that the forecasts were clear that it would be a devastating hurricane,” said Dr. Meléndez, Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City.

Writing for The Guardian, Susanne Ramirez de Arellano, a former news director for Univision Puerto Rico, describes the island’s dependability on social media to get their news, “Our disasters, we figured, just don’t rate high enough in [the major media’s] eyes. Sadly – we were proved right.”

Democrats and Republicans criticized the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, as it has been noticeably slower than responses to hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had supplies and personnel positioned in Texas before or as soon as the storms made landfall. Within days, the number of FEMA employees, other federal personnel and the National Guard deployed  totaled 30,000 to Texas and 40,000 to Florida. In Puerto Rico and the Virgin islands, only 10,000 federal employees were on the ground assisting search and rescue.

President, Donald Trump failed to use
his “tweeter weapon” to bring attention to Maria as he did with Harvey and Irma . When talking about recovery effort funds, Trump complained: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you are throwing our budget out of whack.” At the time, FEMA had only approved $35 million for Puerto Rico. Contrast this sum to the $691 million in FEMA-approved grants to Irma victims in Florida and $323 million to Texas communities recovering from Harvey.

While the U.S. president does not represent the full force of the national government, the president’s ownership of the “bully pulpit” is critical. The message the president sends – or fails to send – will set the tone for public mobilization and awareness and the priority agenda of government agencies.

On the other hand, citizen-led efforts rose up where the government could or would not. It was an unprecedented reaction that transformed the way in which a crisis response mobilizes broader public attention to a disaster. Prominent Latino artists and supporters residing in the U.S. worked tirelessly to awaken the sleeping giant that is the Latino Community to support recovery efforts. These were among the real stars that shined above Puerto Rico.

While news networks were slow to enter Puerto Rico, as soon as the disasters occurred, globally acclaimed artists took the role of coordinating and disseminating information on Twitter. Ricky Martin wrote, “I can’t sleep. My mind is in Puerto Rico with my people. We are strong. We will reconstruct. Together.”

Jennifer Lopez posted a photo with both flags commenting in Spanish, “God please protect my Puerto Rico and give strength to the people of Mexico.”

Daddy Yankee wrote, “Puerto Rico encounters the major humanitarian crisis in our history. “Despacito” has received four nominations for the @latingrammys . Today I used this platform to raise awareness and to ask for help from global community.”

But the role of these figures went beyond just issuing supportive words on Twitter. Post-hurricane, tweet after tweet built the awareness necessary to get fundraisers underway, with musical artists and athletes putting their money and skills to work.

Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez, two of the most prolific Latin music artists, joined forces by creating an initiative called Somos Una Voz, We Are One Voice, which recruited more than 100 prominent figures across sports and entertainment to raise funds and raise attention to bring aid to the island.

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, joined rapper Pitbull in sending a private plane to Puerto Rico to transport cancer patients. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pitbull, Vin Diesel, Jimmy Smits, John Leguizamo, Alex Rodriguez, and more have joined the effort.

The wave of support from the Puerto Rican diaspora built strong public awareness and momentum, which led the two main Spanish-language television networks to join forces for the first time in history. Univision and Telemundo agreed to simultaneously broadcast a special benefit concert to raise funds for disaster relief in the southern United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico and other affected areas in the Caribbean.

The devastation in Puerto Rico is widespread and intensive. Recovery is underway, but it will be slow-moving, regardless of the resources devoted. While President Trump continues to praise himself and his administration for the recovery effort, the real heroes have been the working families in Puerto Rico who have worked tirelessly to get the island back on its feet, as well as prominent artists who, despite lack of initial media coverage, were able to bring light to the crisis and spur recovery efforts.