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From Hurricanes to Earthquakes: Puerto Rico’s Ongoing Trauma

As if the aftermath of Hurricane Maria weren’t bad enough, a series of earthquakes in Puerto Rico in January has made life there even harder. 

“I’m not sure folks understand what’s happening in Puerto Rico,” Professor Yarimar Bonilla (Hunter College) tweeted. “It’s not 1, 2, or even 3 quakes. It’s THOUSANDS. It’s constant fear. Its collapsing bridges. It’s not just about lack of electricity — it’s about fear, anxiety, and uncertainty haunting already debilitated communities.”

Bonilla is the co-editor of Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm, along with Marisol LeBron. The book was published before the earthquakes, but the term “aftershocks” in the title serves as a metaphor for the way Puerto Ricans have been “relentlessly jolted” since Maria.

Some 3,000 people died following the 2017 hurricane not because of wind and rain, but because of contaminated water, uncleared roads that blocked ambulances, and months without power. Suicides and domestic violence spiked. Thousands of islanders have since moved to the U.S. mainland. 

The earthquakes have similarly knocked out power and destroyed buildings and roads – adding to ongoing trauma and displacement, and setting the stage for more health care crises.

But the book argues that the island’s problems are much bigger and deeper than “botched” recovery efforts. “Long before Maria, Puerto Rico was already suffering the effects of a prolonged economic recession, spiraling levels of debt, and deep austerity cuts to public resources. This was preceded by over five centuries of colonialism (first Spanish, then American), and a long history of structural vulnerability and forced dependency,” the editors wrote. 

Puerto Rico had sought to declare bankruptcy over a $72 billion debt, but was blocked by the U.S. Congress and later the U.S. Supreme Court: “With the legal status of neither a state nor an independent nation, Puerto Rico could not refinance or default on its debt.”  A fiscal oversight board created by the Obama administration imposed austerity measures — closing schools, cutting pensions, reducing services — and allocated a third of Puerto Rico’s budget to debt payments. 

The book’s contributors include Carlos Rivera Santana, from Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies, who examined post-hurricane art. Patrick McGrath Muniz’s Renaissance-style painting “Diasporamus,” for example, depicts a tiny boat overloaded with refugees. Among them are a woman trying to get a cellphone signal and a shirtless man holding a paper towel roll – a reference to President Donald Trump’s tossing paper towels into a crowd during a visit. 

Sarah Molinari, a Ph.D. student at The Graduate Center, CUNY, contributed a chapter on “layers of failure” at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including 300,000 aid denials following Maria. Molinari focused on Las Carolinas, a poor, semi-rural, older community that survived months without water service, electricity, or debris pickup. 

Aftershocks suggests that activism is rising on the island post-Maria. The book came out before Puerto Rico’s governor was caught mocking hurricane victims, but perhaps the massive protests that forced him to resign are proof that Puerto Ricans are newly determined to chart their own future. 

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Beyond SUM

Work By

Yarimar Bonilla (Professor, Africana & Puerto Rican/Latino Studies) | Profile 1 | Profile 2
Sarah Molinari (Ph.D. candidate, Cultural anthropology ) | Profile 1
Carlos Rivera Santana (Research associate, Center for Puerto Rican Studies ) | Profile 1