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We Belong to Each Other: Remembering the Lives Lost in Hurricane Maria

By Luz María Frías, YWCA Minneapolis President and CEO
September 17, 2018
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Last week, we commemorated the anniversary of two tragedies where thousands of American lives were lost: September 11 and Hurricane Maria.

It’s been 17 years since our nation suffered the September 11 terrorist attacks which killed 2,996 individuals. It’s a day in history that none of us will forget. A day that defines our lives and understanding of security measures at airports around the world.

The Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

A year ago, Hurricane Maria struck the small island of Puerto Rico killing 2,975 Americans – nearly the same number of lives lost in the September attacks. Initially, the White House administration put the death toll at 64 people until the leaders in Puerto Rico and the rest of our country challenged the veracity of that number.

The tragedy was further augmented by the fact that 121,000 residents were without electricity six months after the storms. By June 1, 2018, 11,000 residents were without electricity. As of July 6, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representative indicated that 99.85 percent of power had been restored. Most Americans living on the mainland can’t fathom going without power for six days, let alone six months, 11 months or even a year.

Two Tragedies on U.S. Soil

Although the nature of these two tragedies is very different (i.e., one was an act of man while the other was an act of nature) the destruction to our collective psyche cannot and should not be ignored.

We need to ask ourselves some tough questions: 

If Hurricane Maria had struck Jamestown, North Dakota, where the overwhelming majority of residents are white, would it have taken as long to restore electricity?

Would we, as Americans, have mobilized a national relief effort if the afflicted people were not seen as “others” i.e., Spanish speakers versus English speakers, brown skin versus white, “Puerto Ricans” versus “Americans?” Less than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, a poll showed that nearly half of Americans did not know that Puerto Ricans are fellow U.S. citizens.

Acknowledging the Magnitude of Lives Lost

Lastly, the trauma resulting from the hurricane cuts even deeper at the thought that some elected officials refuse to acknowledge the magnitude of lives that were lost.

Refusing to acknowledge the lives lost is akin to refusing to validate the humanity and value to their families and our community.

The people of Puerto Rico continue to remind us that we belong to each other.