Today in History

Today in History: Two years ago Hurricane Maria made landfall upon Puerto Rico two weeks after Hurricane Irma. Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover, even today.

As Puerto Rico continues to recover from Hurricane Maria, The Canisius Griffin takes a moment to remember this day in history.

Hurricane Maria makes landfall upon Puerto Rico

On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria fell upon Puerto Rico three days after achieving hurricane status and ravaging other islands of the Carribean. 

Having originated from a low-pressure trough coming off of the coast of West Africa, Tropical Storm Maria had already passed over half of the Lesser Antilles by the time it gradually grew to a Category 1 hurricane. It then exploded in size and intensity and within 24 hours had become a Category 5 with winds twice their original speed. After raging through the rest of the Lesser Antilles (reducing in intensity due to its interactions with the island of Dominica) it made landfall on the southeastern side of Puerto Rico as a Category 4.

Only two weeks prior, Puerto Rico had been hit by Hurricane Irma, another Category 4 hurricane that killed at least three people and took out almost the entire power grid of the whole island, exacerbating the condition of the already frustrated infrastructure of a nation struggling under protracted bankruptcy and debt. With the water system also damaged by Irma and 80,000 without power, FEMA’s relief supplies had already been exhausted in the US Virgin Islands and weren’t refreshed before Maria’s arrival. Puerto Rican citizens were preparing themselves individually and in shelters, with large migrations to San Juan and the United States.

The hurricane struck the island with a sustained wind speed of 64 mph up to 118 mph. By the time it passed, over a peak rainfall of 38 inches had fallen. Large portions of residences, up to 80 percent of some neighborhoods (particularly those coastal), of San Juan were destroyed by the immediate effects of the storm. Up to 80% of the island’s agriculture was destroyed. What remained of the power grid from Irma was finished off, 95% of wireless sites and 60% of cell sites were inoperable, and landslides caused further damage throughout the more central regions of the country. Hurricane Maria ended with an estimated cost of $90 billion to the United States as a whole. 

Initial counts of the death toll by the government of Puerto Rico numbered 64, which was met with great skepticism as investigative reports probed the damage to find over a thousand possible storm-related deaths. Almost a year later the government revised the number to 2,975 Puerto Ricans, making Hurricane Maria one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes in history. 

The United States has received much criticism in its response to the event. In the midst of Maria’s approach, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló appealed the federal government to declare Puerto Rico a disaster zone, but the declaration of a state of emergency was all that the territory was granted. The federal aid efforts, already hampered by the effects of Hurricane Irma, were seen as unsatisfactory, and the controversy over the death toll brought negative attention as well. 

Puerto Rico still struggles to recover today. In August of 2019, Rosselló reported to Congress that the island would need $139 billion to recover from the total damages of Irma and Maria. The federal government has granted only $42 billion towards the rebuilding of infrastructure, with only $21 billion having been received as of now. As the population of Puerto Rico continues to decline largely due to emigration, they have fallen from the public view of most Americans and from that of the world as well. 

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