An island somewhere in the universe

This week’s guest blog is by Mariana León-Pérez, Graduate Research Assistant at Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies and a scholar of the NOAA Educational Partnership Program Center for Coastal and Marine Ecosystems.

About one year after Hurricane María hit the archipelago of Puerto Rico, I was moving to Texas to start a doctoral degree at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.  The effects of María on Puerto Rico received a lot of coverage in the news, so naturally many people wanted to know about my experience during and after this natural disaster that took thousands of lives. One question was consistent: Why didn’t Puerto Ricans evacuate the island if they knew that a category 5 hurricane was heading their way? That question always caught me by surprise… To evacuate? But to where? I didn’t understand why people were asking that question. The possibility of evacuating never crossed my mind nor that of my family and friends. I later understood that the question came from a different reality than mine.

When you grow up in a small island like I did, your island is your world and everything beyond your coastal boundaries is unknown and even a bit suspicious. (This mindset is juxtaposed with the mindset created by centuries of colonization in Puerto Rico, but that’s another story to tell.) As a young islander, I wasn’t really encouraged to travel or study beyond Puerto Rico, but for some reason I was one of the few in my family courageous enough to “brincar el charco” (slang for going to the USA meaning “hopping the puddle”). Thanks to multiple scholarships, I was able to travel to other countries like Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba and more. These experiences made me realize and question my heritage, culture, and politics, but also understand the important role of geography in the way I perceive and experience my environment.

Mariana at Orocovis, Puerto Rico. Photo by Raymesh Cintron.

Geography has been a crucial aspect to consider when analyzing the history of Puerto Rico. The harsh reality of living on an island was realized on September 20, 2017, when María made a powerful landfall. Although a lot of the issues we experienced had to do with lack of preparedness and mishandling of disaster aid from the local and federal governments, there was an ever-present factor that complicated everything: Puerto Rico is an island! From day one, thousands of people lost their homes; we had no power, drinking water, or locally produced food; we ran out of gasoline and propane gas; and all communications were interrupted. Former U.S. President Trump even emphasized this when in a post-hurricane press conference said, “This is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It’s a big ocean, it’s a very big ocean.” For days, weeks, stretching to months, we were in the need of water, food, fuel, medicines, construction materials, etc., and everything had to be imported. Vital infrastructure was also affected: airports, shipping ports, and roads to transport the goods.

In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was scaling up, I happened to be in Puerto Rico. When the first rumors of a lock down were heard, everyone rushed to the grocery stores and gas stations. Weeks later the hospitals were struggling with the situation and some essential goods started to lack. Flashbacks of what happened in María overwhelmed me, but this time was different; it was not only Puerto Ricans in an emergency, but our entire planet.

It felt as if suddenly the whole planet experienced a major hurricane and this time we were all completely on our own.

If there is something I learned from the pandemic it is that we all live in a closed system… an isolated “island” somewhere in the universe. In a matter of weeks, we realized how dependent we are on each other for goods and services. In a sense, our planet is like the island where I grew up, an “island” sitting somewhere in the universe, a big universe, a very big universe. As an “island”, we have limited resources and the way we plan our future and conserve what we have is going to dictate how the conditions of life will be someday.

So why didn’t Puerto Ricans evacuate the island if they knew a hurricane was coming? It was only about two days before María made landfall when we knew that a category 5 was coming. There was so much to do: securing windows and wooden roofs, buying food and water, getting in long lines for fuel, helping elderly or disabled family and neighbors, relocating from flood and landslide prone areas. Evacuating the island was simply not an option. Most islanders simply do not have any other place to go, so we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. 

Similar to Puerto Rico, we Earthlings already know of the many challenges scientists have forecasted for our planet, in particular those related to climate change and severe weather events. We already know “a hurricane is coming our way.” Thus, the question is, what we are going do about this?

It is not viable to evacuate the planet. However, we are very fortunate that we do have the power to take actions to reduce those threats and better prepare for what the future holds. But how we do that? Aside from following the numerous recommendations the scientific community has provided us, we can also learn from the islander point of view. Hurricane María left us with a deep wound, but it taught us that we are capable of bringing a country back from the rubble. We strengthened our sense of community, which resulted in numerous positive outcomes. Now that the whole humanity faced the pandemic, maybe we can start creating a narrative of what we lived through together and strengthen our sense of community. Our history is full of examples of the great things we can achieve when we act as a collective. It’s truly a small world after all!

Mariana at Humacao, Puerto Rico. Photo by William Hernandez.

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