If there’s one thing that politics and weather have in common, it’s that both can be unexpectedly messy. We saw that perfect storm in 2017— when the United States elected an uncommon reality TV star president, Donald J. Trump, and Hurricane Maria devastated countless Caribbean islands including the U.S. island of Puerto Rico, wiping out both beautiful landscapes and its beautiful people.
Restoration efforts and aid in the wake of Hurricane Maria remain meager, and day-to-day life reflects the loss and abandon the island has experienced since the storm. Schools in Puerto Rico are beginning the 2018 school year with 35,000 fewer students enrolled (more than 200 schools closed altogether). Many have left the island after months without electricity and clean water.
The long-term effects of the hurricane—from the severely limited rescue and restoration efforts, and families and students leaving the island— remain to be seen, yet we can only guess what impact it will have on the island over time. While many of the strong people of Puerto Rico have managed to reestablish “normality,” there is an unshakeable reality that permeates the island.
The storyline feels eerily similar to how Hurricane Katrina played out in New Orleans. Among numerous similarities, one stark difference and opportunity stands out. A 2008 study from experts at the University of Chicago, University of Utah, California Institute of Technology found that registered voters who experienced more than six feet of flooding in New Orleans during Katrina were more likely to participate in the mayoral election than registered voters who experienced less flooding. Yet, a recent Washington Post article pointed out that while conventional wisdom would suggest that Puerto Ricans who’ve fled the island and relocated to Florida (and who are now eligible to register to vote) would be lining up to vote against a government that left them high and dry, many have yet to register. Despite the many Puerto Ricans who are now in the U.S. mainland (living in Florida), the uptick in registration among Hispanic voters in the state is limited.
It would be easy to blame Puerto Ricans who’ve migrated here for not jumping at the opportunity to register to vote. But it’s important to look at their circumstances. State Rep. Amy Mercado (D) put it best when she suggested that Puerto Ricans “main focus obviously is going to be survival,” and “the last thing they’re thinking about is politics.” Many continue to search for affordable housing, jobs, and establishing a new life in Florida.
Despite the perfect storm that created a catastrophic natural disaster and insufficient relief, we do not need to create another storm of politics and apathy towards those who are striving to create life after destruction. Instead, we need to look at all the ways we can support Puerto Ricans so that their basic human rights, like access to housing, are protected so that in turn, their basic American right to vote is prioritized. Simply put: we should first ask ourselves, will people vote if they’re living in hotels (or now, being kicked out of hotels and struggling to find homes)?
It’s critical that we look at ways to not only continue supporting efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico but support those who have come to Florida in hopes of creating a new life for themselves. Then, we must help get them registered to vote. We have to take a holistic approach to reintegrate our fellow citizens into society—instead of repeating history and leaving them on the margins to rebuild on their own. That means everything matters—from rebuilding homes and schools and infrastructure to providing jobs and housing to those who are now in Florida to registering new Puerto Rican voters.
There’s no better time than now to rally and offset the aftermath of that perfect storm.