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A Problem Like Maria – Saving Lives in an Age of Climate Catastrophe (Jacaranda Turvey Tait and MT Dávila)

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When Hurricane Maria made landfall just south of Yabucoa Harbor in Puerto Rico in the early hours of Wednesday, September 20, it unleashed its force on an island already reeling from the impact of Irma on its vulnerable infrastructure. The result was literally catastrophic. Almost three weeks after the storm abated, most of the 3.4 million Americans on the island still have no electricity and nearly half of them lack access to basic essentials like clean water.

Maria was quite simply a different class of disaster than Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which, despite their awesome size and ferocity and the record-breaking deluge they disgorged on Houston and Florida, did not have comparable impacts on infrastructure on the U.S. mainland. Truly catastrophic events are rarer than disasters, Professor Tricia Wachtendorf—an expert on disaster relief—told The Atlantic, adding:

It’s very difficult to navigate the impact zone—to know which roads are open, and to know what to detour around […] if you have any supplies pre-positioned they might have been destroyed. You have officials that are unable to take their usual roles on.

In a tropical climate, a catastrophe like Maria can quickly turn into a public health emergency. The aftermath of a flood disaster provides ideal breeding conditions for disease-carrying mosquitos. There is a real risk of outbreaks of diarrheal diseases where sewage disposal systems are not functioning and people are forced to drink water from potentially contaminated sources. This is exactly the kind of situation Pope Francis envisioned when he wrote in his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ that access to safe drinking water is “essential to human survival” and “a condition for the exercise of other human rights.” It is the human cost of our collective failure to prioritize social justice and care for the ecological health of our common home.

With hospitals already struggling to cope with those injured during the hurricane, and with computers and essential equipment disabled by the power outage, the risk of a rising death toll is a clear, ongoing threat in Puerto Rico. This is not the time for partisan squabbling, we need to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable and work together to mitigate this disaster before it gets any worse. Notwithstanding the unprecedented level of logistical challenge, it is unacceptable that American citizens are dying preventable deaths and drinking unsafe water nearly three weeks after the storm abated.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan—appointed eight days into this catastrophe to manage the relief effort—saw immediately that more help and more troops were needed. “It’s not enough and we are bringing more in,” he said. More helicopters are now there to ferry aid to remote areas, a task that local officials could not reasonably be expected to be able to organize with so many roads still impassable, many of the required vehicles damaged in the storm and communications networks down, making it impossible to contact drivers.

Yet, as the Washington Post notes, comparing the scale of the military response to the mobilization achieved after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti suggests that more might have been done more quickly. In order to ensure a faster, more effective response to future catastrophes—and all the evidence points to the increased intensity of hurricanes in the future if we continue on our current warming trajectory—it will be helpful to understand what the barriers were to fast and effective disaster management in Puerto Rico.

The Post suggested that the Posse Comitatus Act, an obscure piece of legislation that limits the deployment of military assets to an emergency on American soil, may have hampered efforts. Mark Nevitt, writing for Just Security, clarifies that the Act does not apply to humanitarian missions, but it is possible that confusion over its legal scope may have been a factor in the military response to Maria.

There has been much legal discussion over the effect of the 1920 Jones Act, which restricts shipping permits to vessels owned and operated by US companies. President Trump came under sustained pressure to waive this, as he did in Texas and Florida, to facilitate shipment of humanitarian assistance. He eventually did so on September 28, eight days after Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. However, since the main airport was open to military traffic from Friday September 22, the port at San Juan reopened the next day, and by the time of the waiver, supplies already delivered to the island were log-jammed due to distribution problems; it seems unlikely that this concession made a significant impact on the outcome.

What we are witnessing is not an isolated catastrophe. It is a catastrophe 120+ years in the making, determined by a complex interaction between an extreme weather event and pre-existing social conditions that affect capacity to recover and adapt. Development policies that were implemented in most of Central and South America with disastrous consequences for local economies were also present in Puerto Rico. This made the country completely dependent on imports for its daily existence. In addition, the same neoliberal policies that are squeezing populations in Portugal, Spain, and Greece, were put in place in Puerto Rico, where the spectre of privatization of badly managed utilities is added to a 77 billion dollar debt.

Careful study of Laudato Si’ highlights how Pope Francis foresees the intricate dynamics of colonialism, neoliberal economic policies, and environmental distress impacting the most vulnerable peoples of the globe. In Puerto Rico we are perhaps witnessing an early example of a catastrophe that proves Francis’s insights correct. In the future, our societies will be more resilient if we fight now for Catholic ideals of social justice, and the storms our children suffer will be less fierce if this generation faces up to our responsibility for ecological security.

But right now in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico the focus needs to be on addressing the logistical barriers to distribution of safe drinking water to desperate families, as well as diesel generators—and the fuel needed to operate them—to hospitals that still cannot reliably access power from the crippled grid. The arrival last week of the military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort, equipped with rescue helicopters, medics, and sophisticated facilities, is now helping to alleviate the acute crisis that engulfed the island’s health system in the wake of Maria. But more needs to be done, and done quickly, to distribute life-saving essentials to vulnerable people and forestall the spread of water-borne diseases.

Full recovery for Puerto Rico will be a long process. Restoring power across the island is expected to take months. Clearing and repairing roads and reinforcing the damaged Guajataca Dam, which is in danger of collapse, are major engineering challenges. In the longer term, the wisdom of calls to replace an archaic, expensive, and environmentally damaging centralized electric power system with a smart network of climate resilient solar micro-grids should be clear. Long after the news-cycle has moved on, the people of Puerto Rico will need the support and prayers of their fellow Americans and friends overseas.

Climate change is a human rights problem, a food and water security problem, a peace and stability problem, a public health problem, a people are dying problem: a problem like Maria. The President of the United States needs to step up. We all need to step up, make lifestyle changes, lobby our political representatives, show leadership in our own communities, and help those on the frontlines of a catastrophe that ultimately threatens us all.

Jacaranda Turvey Tait is an honorary postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester. 

Maria Teresa Dávila is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School. Her main interests are the intersections of class identity formation and Christian ethics in the U.S. context. Her research looks for the intersection of these issues with respect to the relationship of class and militarism, class and immigration, and class and activism. 

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