As yet another hurricane descends into the Caribbean, vulnerable and often tourism-dependent nations are again being badly battered. Wednesday morning, Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico with 155-mph winds after devastating Dominica and other islands. After the physical impact, it will take years to rebuild; the long-term economic consequences will be even more devastating, if less obvious to the casual observer. As the destruction unfolds, the United States has a responsibility to help.
Maria is the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico in 85 years, and the storm is fierce enough that it broke two National Weather Service radars there. Some tourists are stranded in Puerto Rico as well.
I mention the tourists in part because, for many Americans, “the Caribbean” evokes images of pristine beaches, turquoise waters, and well-tended resorts. For others, the Caribbean is home (or home to grandparents or extended relatives). But as that second group knows better, real life in the Caribbean — not vacation — is not quite as carefree as a day at the beach. More than one in five people live in poverty. In Dominica, which Hurricane Maria left in ruins, nearly 30% of the population is poor.
While poverty rates have dropped across the Caribbean, many islands remain poor; even the many that have been doing better in recent years are still struggling to recover from the economic downturn a decade ago, and remain dependent on tourist dollars to keep their economic engines churning. For the nations hit hardest by the recent hurricanes, that revenue stream has now tanked, while more resources are suddenly in great demand.
It’s time for the United States to step in. American companies have long extracted valuable resources from Latin America and the Caribbean, while our government has meddled in their politics, often keeping fragile nations destabilized and poor.
We’ve also fed the fury of these storms by, for years, not doing enough to thwart climate change, which meteorologists attest has made very bad storms worse. While climate change doesn’t work in a straight line, it’s hard to deny that we are seeing more and more confirmation of what climate scientists tell us are the consequences of environmental abuse: stronger storms that come in closer succession; rising sea levels and warmer waters fueling more vicious storms while coastal areas have less of a buffer; major cities underwater and entire nations potentially wiped out. We have not done our share to curb what will be irrevocable damage to our globe. The least we can do now is offer a hand to the places that have borne the brunt of our greed and our arrogance.
America is not just a government. Individuals have responsibilities, too. They are to press our political representatives to help out our devastated Caribbean neighbors and to be more proactive in fighting climate change. It’s great to individually recycle, bike to work or take shorter showers, but there is no way to make necessary progress without federal regulation of big business. This is imperative for the health of the planet and all of us who live on it — too many of whom have already lost their lives to increasingly unnatural disasters.
And, of course, we can give. If every person who has ever taken a Caribbean cruise or sunned themselves on a Bahamian beach donated just one-tenth of the cost of their trip to hurricane recovery, that region would be a lot better off. More than 6.5 million Americans traveled to the Caribbean last year alone, spending billions of dollars. If you enjoyed your vacation — and more importantly, if you are thinking of the wonderful locals you met during your travels — put your money where your heart is and give to hurricane relief.
Americans have never stayed within our own borders. Neither should our compassion and our resources.