Sheltered in the landlocked north, Chicago does not tend to be impacted by hurricane season. However, after Hurricane Maria struck the US Territory of Puerto Rico last month, the ripples of the enormous storm are being felt on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Nicole Tester is the leader of Puerto Rico Rising - Chicago, a nonprofit that was founded just four days after the hurricane struck. It now has a chapter in every major city.
“The amount of Puerto Ricans that we have in Chicago is much more than the other cities that are working with us,” Tester said in an interview. “For example, we sat in in the Puerto Rican Agenda meeting, and one of the issues we want to help with is all the Puerto Ricans coming into Chicago. I mean, last week alone we had 1,600 Puerto Ricans get on a plane and come to Chicago.”
The organization began with a Puerto Rican woman living in Miami buying supplies at Costco to send to her family on the island. When she realized how big the need was, she contacted friends in cities across the country. Together, they are working to help their friends and family in need in Puerto Rico.
These families will be feeling the repercussions of Hurricane Maria for years to come. The storm caused forty-eight known casualties, with 117 people still missing. Further deaths remain a risk as residents face continuing challenges, including a struggle to find potable water and continuous power outages that are likely to last into December. Infrastructure is severely damaged, with heavily compromised highways and bridges preventing shipments of food and emergency supplies from reaching the island.
In the face of this destruction, Puerto Rico Rising is working to collect donations, fundraise, ship and distribute goods, and communicate with the island in order to facilitate the recovery process. Although the storm surged from the sea, bringing with it floods and torrential rains, one of the biggest problems the island faces is water shortage, which Tester and her team are working to help alleviate.
"That's one of our main concerns, water,” she said. “Water as an energy source, water as a way of drinking, water as life. We want to make sure that down there we can help them maximize every drop of water they have. I mean my family lives in the capital and they ran out of drinking water. I can't imagine people who are really secluded in mountains, what is going on with them."
The island is also facing severe power outages. Most Puerto Ricans are still without power, and repairs to the power grid are expected to cost $5 billion or more and take several months to complete. Meanwhile, life without power is heartbreaking and dangerous. Elon Musk offered to provide solar panels to the island through his company, Tesla, earlier in October. On October 24, Tesla tweeted out images of a solar and power storage project at Hospital del Nino in San Juan. Speaking before the tweet, Tester explained that Puerto Rico Rising is working on accumulating and sending resources to provide solar power in case Tesla was unable to help.
“I pray to God they beat us to it,” she said.
Alongside civilian groups like Puerto Rico Rising, various government bodies are also working to respond to the crisis. Since the hurricane struck, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue task force has rescued 165 people, and the Department of Energy has been working to facilitate fuel deliveries to the island. However, one of the most significant federal actions has also been one of the most controversial.
On September 28, the Trump administration announced that it would temporarily waive the Jones Act, which many argued was proving to be an obstacle to disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico. More formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act was designed to create more American jobs in the aftermath of World War I. Most significantly, it mandates that goods travelling by water between US ports be carried on ships that are built in the United States, registered in the United States, at least 75 percent American-owned, and at least 75 percent US-crewed.
Proponents of the Jones Act say it creates and protects jobs, while detractors say it serves special interests in the shipping industry. Either way, it limits the movement of international ships around the United States For the ten days that the Jones Act was waived for Puerto Rico, international ships could deliver aid between US ports, but now the act is back in effect, despite calls for its complete repeal.
"I know for the rest of the island it's been a challenge our whole life, because it's almost like a monopoly on our poor little island,” said Tester. “When they told us that that was going to be lifted, everybody celebrated with a ray of hope. Then we realized that it was ten days, everybody was a little confused. But it's sad that we've gotten to a point where we'll even take ten days of the Jones Act being lifted, when it should be a year or more."
The controversy surrounding the federal response to Hurricane Maria was only exacerbated when the Commander-in-Chief visited the island nine days after the hurricane. In his public address, Trump said that Maria was not a real catastrophe, implied that Puerto Ricans should feel lucky that Maria’s death toll was smaller than that of Hurricane Katrina and, in a scene that quickly went viral, threw paper towels into a crowd at one of his speeches, a move that has been interpreted as making light of the catastrophe.
Although not as prominent as Trump’s actions, local politicians’ responses to Hurricane Maria have also come under fire. On October 2, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would welcome “tens of thousands” of displaced Puerto Ricans to Chicago as they sought options after the hurricane. Twenty-three firefighters from Chicago visited Puerto Rico to aid in the relief efforts. Emanuel linked the hurricane to climate change and said that city officials have begun planning an initiative to help displaced Puerto Ricans find new homes in Chicago.
"Chicago, in my view, will be living up to what it means to be a sanctuary city," he said during the speech.
Sanctuary cities are cities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration law enforcement. However, Puerto Ricans are US citizens, and are free to move anywhere in the country that they choose, and therefore are not subject to the immigration laws that sanctuary cities oppose.
Tester expressed gratitude for the mayor’s welcoming stance, while adding that Chicago’s large Puerto Rican community deserved more concrete action.
“The mayor of Chicago has been very positive. With the amount of Puerto Ricans, maybe there could be a little more initiative. But positivity is something that we are happy to receive right now.”
The president, she said on the other hand, was taking the situation too lightly.
“As far as on a larger scale, I think it's sad the way that our president has been dealing with the island,” Tester continued. “Because he was such a big part of our island for such a long time—he has resorts there, he had a golf course, he's a big contributor to our debt. I feel like it was almost a joke to him. Maybe because of the size of the island, maybe because we're not a state. I really don't know. But it makes us be a little confused about our status."
While politicians and corporations continue to coordinate efforts to provide systemic institutional help to the people of Puerto Rico, local nonprofits and communities are working together in cities like Chicago to provide direct help to affected families. Puerto Rico Rising - Chicago has been working with the Puerto Rican Agenda to help find jobs and living situations for the thousands of Puerto Ricans who are still coming to Chicago. Many are staying with relatives in overcrowded apartments, where there might only be one paycheck coming in, so Puerto Rico Rising is helping to supplement the resources available to them.
Efforts from groups like Puerto Rico Rising and the Puerto Rican Agenda include conventional fundraising and donation collecting efforts, but the hurricane has also spurred more unique responses in Chicago and beyond. The Puerto Rican Agenda is working on establishing mental health resources for people affected by the trauma of the hurricane. Personal GoFundMe pages like this one have emerged to help people get family members out of dangerous conditions on the island. The group BoricuaBnB is working to connect people in need of housing after the storm with those offering it, while advocating for broader political and institutional change to cope with the long-term effects of Hurricane Maria.
These long term effects are likely to take years to play out, in Puerto Rico and in cities like Chicago. Tester expects Chicago’s Puerto Rican community to continue to grow, which will present a challenge to Puerto Rico Rising and other organizations working to welcome new Chicagoans.
“It's going to be an upward battle,” she said, “because we're going to have to place more students in schools, find more jobs. But then again, there's always the need for bilingual teachers, bilingual nurses, even having students that are bilingual in schools. So I think it's going to be a great asset, as well as a struggle. Does that make sense? So I think the beginning is going to be tough, and once we get the hang of it it's going to be something wonderful for the community.”
This attitude is reflected in her organization’s name. Originally called Puerto Rico Rises, "it changed this weekend to ‘Rising’,” Tester told me. “For multiple reasons, but more than anything we wanted it to be something ongoing. So it doesn't just rise, it is rising continuously."
The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Kaeli Subberwal is a fourth-year majoring in political science and minoring in physics. She has spent her summers working in local journalism at the Summit Daily News and national journalism at HuffPost, and doing archival research through the College Summer Institute in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In her free time, Kaeli enjoys reading, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and doing crossword puzzles instead of studying.