What to Know
- On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island of Puerto Rico wreaking havoc across its terrain
- Few storms throughout US history provoked the level of widespread destruction and disorganization experienced during and in the aftermath
- The impact of the massive storm, which caused about $100 billion in damage and claimed about 3,000 lives, is still being felt a year later
On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island of Puerto Rico wreaking havoc across its terrain to such great proportions that very few storms throughout United States history provoked the level of widespread destruction and disorganization experienced during and in the aftermath of Maria.
So severe was the impact of the massive storm that the island incurred roughly $100 billion in damages and the effects are still being felt a year later.
From its inception, Maria was poised to bring a worst possible scenario to the island. The Category 4 storm made a direct hit on Puerto Rico, bringing along with it torrential rains and devastating winds that lashed the island.
The chaos during the storm was seemingly matched by the disarray following it.
In the wake of the hurricane, residents of the island saw themselves having to clean up the damage left behind, wade through high flood waters, face a lack of clean water and spend almost a year dealing with unreliable access to electricity.
Weeks after Maria had made landfall, residents were still struggling with obtaining access to clean water.
Not only were the basic necessities difficult to come by in the weeks after the storm, but the power grid across the entire island was destroyed by the hurricane, leaving millions of residents without electricity.
The government-owned electric power company in Puerto Rico announced Aug. 14, 2018 that it officially restored electricity to the island.
According to a tweet by the Puerto Rico Power Authority, or Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (AEE) as it is known is Spanish, the utility restored power to its final client in Bo Real Anon in the municipality of Ponce.
This final power restoration marked an uphill climb for residents of the island, who faced the longest recorded power outage in United States history.
The island’s terrain also contributed to delaying the efforts, since at times it was difficult for workers to access downed wires due to a mountainous territory.
The AEE also saw company turmoil — struggling through bankruptcy (that started prior to the hurricane) while going through three different CEOs in the span of two weeks during the summer.
The overall disorder related to the storm was so severe that a recent study revealed the extent of how unprepared, not only the island was, but the U.S. mainland was in addressing the storm.
A federal report published Sept. 4 found that staff shortages and a lack of trained personnel slowed the U.S. government's response to Hurricane Maria.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office said 54 percent of federal emergency personnel were not qualified to do the rescue work in October 2017. The report also states there were logistical challenges due to the location of Puerto Rico and the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, and added that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had to assume many of the local government's responsibilities given the loss of power and communications as well as "limited local preparedness for a major hurricane."
This study was not the only one published in the wake of Hurricane Maria that touched upon the storm’s level of devastation.
Another study by George Washington University determined 2,975 people died on the island following the storm — far more than the official death toll of 64 given by the island's government.
In the weeks after the storm, Puerto Rican officials said the storm directly caused dozens of deaths, many in landslides or flooding. But, they had long acknowledged that many more people may have died due to indirect effects of the powerful storm.
The findings from the long-awaited study commissioned by the U.S. territory's government estimated far more than both the official death toll and the government's previous interim estimate of 1,400, with the elderly and impoverished being the most affected.
However, on Sept. 13, president Donald Trump’s controversial tweet in which he denied that the roughly 3,000 people died in the aftermath of hurricane Maria left many flabbergasted, one of those people was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who slammed the contentious message by pointing to her own grandfather’s death.
In his tweet, Trump rejected the death toll presented by the George Washington University study and also claimed that Democrats intentionally inflated the death toll to make him “look as bad as possible.”
The 28-year-old Democratic House of Representatives candidate replied to Trump’s tweet, with one of her own: “My grandfather died in the aftermath of the storm. Uncounted. Thousands of Puerto Ricans have similar stories. They have lost children, friends, & family members.”
She ended her tweet with: “Instead of finger-pointing, INVEST in the Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico + just transition to renewable energy.”
Ocasio-Cortez was not the only politician to criticize what Trump had to say regarding Hurricane Maria or how he handled the storm.
Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed that the state planned to sue Trump and the federal government for “failing” to help Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria.
Additionally, Trump’s tweet denying the death toll was not the first time he caused controversy when it came to Hurricane Maria.
After the storm ravaged through the island, the president visited Puerto Rico to see the devastation firsthand. Portions of his visit went viral, particularly images of him throwing paper towels to people waiting for supplies and his joke that recovery costs are throwing the federal budget "out of whack" — actions San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz rebuked and called disrespectful.
Another controversial moment came Sept. 11, 2018, when the president said he thought the U.S. government's storm response was "incredibly successful" — a notion that was criticized, particularly due to the uphill battles many Puerto Ricans are still facing as a direct result of the deadly storm.
Uphill battles have not only been experienced by those still on the island, but Puerto Ricans who have left the island prior to the storm and after the devastation.
According to NBC News, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans left the island, at least temporarily. Many of them having settled in Florida, New York and Connecticut.
About 11,000 displaced Puerto Ricans are currently living in New York, Cuomo said.
However, housing funds for those Puerto Rican families who fled Hurricane Maria, funds which helped them live in hotels and motels across the country, have since ceased and they have been, subsequently, forced to scramble to find housing. Families had to move out by Sept. 14 from these FEMA temporary housing, a judge ruled Aug. 30.
The road to recovery is still underway as reconstruction is in progress throughout the entire island.
However, slowly but surely some signs of change are emerging.
In Old San Juan, stores are open again and tourism is starting to pick up once more — although not at the level it once was prior to Maria.
In Puerto Rico, the storm made history. But, the chapters on its recovery, are still in the making.