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Hurricane Irma Set to Impact the U.S., Whether It Reaches the Mainland Or Not

Hot on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, which has devastated Houston, Hurricane Irma is on its way to inflicting more damage onto the United States: first, by hitting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as early as tomorrow, then possibly moving toward Florida.

Classified as a Category 5 storm (for perspective, Harvey was a Category 4), Hurricane Irma is currently on a course to tear through the Caribbean, and is expected to hit the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico between today and tomorrow, packing 175 mph winds and, according to Michael Brennan of the National Hurricane Center, “”We could see storm surges of 7 to 11 feet — that’s certainly life-threatening — and very, very heavy flooding rainfall,” as reported by CNN.

Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard, urging Puerto Ricans to prepare for Irma’s arrival. According to Reuters, Rossello said at a press conference that “There is no positive sign that it’s going to go in another direction. We’re expecting that it’s coming at Puerto Rico with force, and we’ve got to be ready for it.” The island’s 3.4 million residents have been stocking up on bottled water, power generators, and other supplies, leaving store shelves empty.

CNN also reports that “The US Virgin Islands, with about 100,000 people, declared a state of emergency Tuesday and ordered the National Guard into active service.”

Based on the current trajectory of the storm, after hitting these two American territories as well as other island countries in the Caribbean, Irma could hit Florida.

Florida’s Governor Rick Scott has also declared a state of emergency, saying in an official statement that, “In Florida, we always prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and while the exact path of Irma is not absolutely known at this time, we cannot afford to not be prepared.” He also mentioned that Trump has offered “the full resources of the federal government as Floridians prepare for Hurricane Irma.”

As far as I’ve heard or read, despite Puerto Rico being a part of the United States and in more immediate path of the storm, and despite its governor also having declared a state of emergency, a similar promise has not been made to them by our President. Probably because those particular American citizens don’t get to vote for President, so who cares?

What’s more, media coverage of this storm, while rightfully reporting on the impending damage on the entire Caribbean as well as Florida seems to be framing the story as an “us and them” scenario with some really weird word choices. Some examples [emphasis mine]:

  • The opening paragraph of Reuters’ coverage reads, “Hurricane Irma strengthened into a highly dangerous Category 5 storm on Tuesday as it barreled toward the Caribbean and the southern United States, threatening deadly winds, storm surges and flooding as Texas and Louisiana was still reeling from devastating Hurricane Harvey.” Their headline reads “‘Extremely dangerous’ Irma barrels toward Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico,” placing emphasis on the American territories being affected in the Caribbean, which is great, but doesn’t mention those place names in connection to the United States, as if they’re reporting on the goings-on in other countries as opposed to reporting American news.
  • The Atlantic opens with “The continental United States is preparing for another major hurricane just weeks after Harvey unleashed torrential rains over southeastern Texas, leading to catastrophic flooding, the displacement of thousands, and the deaths of at least 60 people.” Because, of course, the continental United States is all that matters. (Shh! Don’t tell Hawaii) Their article goes on to report that “If Irma reaches Florida, the hurricane could put a strain on U.S. disaster-relief efforts as millions across southeastern Texas start to rebuild in Harvey’s wake.” Only if it reaches Florida?
  • AOL had the decency to say that “Irma would be the second powerful hurricane to thrash the United States and its territories in as many weeks,” out-and-out saying that U.S. territories were being affected and putting that into one sentence…but had they just said “the second powerful hurricane to thrash the United States,” would readers have known what they meant by that?
  • CNN seems to have some of the more inclusive coverage, and even changed the wording on their reportage to improve it. When I first clicked on the link, under Story Highlights it read “It’s too early to tell the exact impact Irma will have on US, but Florida prepares.” Now, it reads “It’s too early to tell the exact impact Irma will have on US mainland, but Florida prepares.” Glad they know that Puerto Rico and some of the Virgin Islands are a part of the United States, but the story is still framed around what will happen to Florida while treating the U.S’s island territories as foreign places, despite barely reporting on actual non-U.S. island nations like Antigua and Cuba at all.

I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t care about Irma’s impact on Florida. I’m saying that we should care about what happens to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as much.

As a Puerto Rican who’s lived in the mainland United States her whole life, but who’s always had family on the island and whose parents were born there, it is extremely frustrating to me to see how callously the U.S. treats its relationship with Puerto Rico, and how despite nearly 3.5 million American citizens living there (and over 100,000 in the USVI), most citizens on the mainland don’t really think about them as fellow Americans deserving of care.

When it comes to having a place to go on vacation, shelter one’s money, or test one’s weapons, the United States is all about Puerto Rico. But when it comes to actually caring for or about the people there, protecting their economy from vulture capitalists, getting concrete about how our economic laws apply there so that their economy isn’t continually devastated, leaving the island without schools or hospitals, or indeed preparing to aid them in a time of natural disaster, suddenly Puerto Rico becomes “over there,” and no one knows what to do with it, or how to talk about it.

Regardless of where one stands with regard to whether Puerto Rico should be independent, the fact is that they are a part of the United States now, and as such deserve the same care and concern as any other state should disaster strike. And when we talk about places like Puerto Rico, or the USVI, or Guam, let’s remember that we’re talking about fellow Americans.

When Irma hits Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it will be hitting the United States. Here’s hoping our government and our fellow citizens respond accordingly.

(image: National Hurricane Center)

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