After hurricane, Trump comments, some KU Puerto Ricans think island should seek independence from U.S.

In this Sept. 28, 2017, Associated Press file photo, homes and other buildings destroyed by Hurricane Maria lie in ruins in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. President Donald Trump has claimed the death toll in Puerto Rico has been exaggerated for political purposes.

Some Puerto Ricans in the University of Kansas community say they were angered but not surprised when President Donald Trump recently denied official death totals from last year’s Hurricane Maria.

Three of them — Bob Augelli, KU business lecturer; Luis Gonzalez, KU geology professor; and Bryan Rodriguez-Colon, a geology graduate student — said the president’s actions in the past year had already revealed an indifference toward the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and its people. They believe it is an indifference that will fuel a Puerto Rican movement for independence from the United States.

In a recent tweet, Trump dismissed as a Democratic hoax the death totals that George Washington University identified in a recent study. The president simultaneously praised his administration’s relief effort as “incredible” and an “unsung success.” GWU’s study, which was undertaken for the Puerto Rican government, found that 2,975 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, which slammed into the island on Sept. 20, 2017.

Augelli said the GWU study was actually the second study to find a far greater death toll than the estimates released soon after the storm; some of those early tolls were expressed in two- and three-figure numbers. A Harvard study released in May put the number of deaths at 4,645, he said.

Many of the deaths weren’t caused by winds or direct flooding from the storm, but resulted from such circumstances as a lack of medication or of electricity to keep insulin refrigerated or to power kidney dialysis centers or oxygen respirators, Augelli said.

Rodriguez-Colon said his aunt was one of those victims.

“She died of cancer in December because the hospital had no electricity,” he said. “She died the day I returned to the island for semester break. I didn’t get to see her.”

Augelli, who returned Aug. 1 from a three-week visit to the island, said the evidence refuting Trump’s boast about the recovery can be seen in the vast patches of blue as planes fly into San Juan’s airport.

“It’s the roofs of the homes,” he said. “They are covered by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) tarps.”

During his visit, power still hadn’t been restored to all of Old San Juan, despite the priority given to the popular tourist area in the island’s capital city, Augelli said. Power was restored to all of the main island in August, 11 months after the hurricane, although Augelli said two islands off the eastern coast were still without electricity.

Even on the main island, power is still unreliable.

“It’s very fragile,” Augelli said. “Power went down islandwide twice because of accidents. You can see places where power poles are leaning over so there is hardly room for cars to pass under them.”

Island tour

Augelli got to see a good slice of the island during his visit. Through a series of coincidences and a chain of friendships, the travel agency AltruVistas, which specializes in tours emphasizing social justice and sustainability, hired him to be a translator and tour manager for 10 college students visiting the island. The students were all survivors of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

The students helped with a number of projects during their 10-day visit, including assisting with a University of Puerto Rico vegetable garden project and the installation of solar panels. Augelli said those were sustainability efforts designed to reduce the islanders’ reliance on an outdated power grid and food imported from the mainland, he said.

photo by: Submitted photo

KU business lecturer Bob Augelli, on right, served as translator and tour manager for 10 Hurricane Katrina survivors who visited Puerto Rico in July. During their visit, the students met with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz (wearing the white shirt in the front row).

Gardens make sense on a sunny island that can produce crops 12 months a year, but currently, Puerto Rico imports 80 percent of its food, Augelli said. The Jones Act, which requires all goods entering Puerto Rico from U.S. ports to be carried on U.S.-built and -flagged ships, increases the cost of imports by 15 to 30 percent, Augelli said.

Organizers hoped the students’ visit would provide a chance for the students to deal with their own hurricane trauma by sharing their experiences, Augelli said. A meeting he arranged with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz helped achieve that goal.

“What was supposed to be a 20-minute photo op turned into a 90-minute beautiful, emotional experience,” he said. “The mayor started talking about her experience in the hurricane. She talked about the sound of the fury of the wind and how helpless she felt when it was her responsibility to take care of the people of the city. She started to tear up in a very beautiful way. I look around and all the students were crying, too. And, you should know, all the adults were in tears.”

Statehood or independence?

Puerto Rico was struggling before the hurricane from a long economic recession and a debt crisis on government-issued bonds. Augelli said the island’s economy tended to bounce up and down like a volleyball depending on federal policy.

Disappointment with the federal government’s hurricane response and control of the economy has Augelli, Gonzalez and Rodriguez-Colon rethinking their views on the island’s political future. All three agree that the current territorial status, which they characterize as colonialism, is no longer viable and that Puerto Ricans need a stronger voice in their own destiny.

University of Kansas graduate student Bryan Rodriguez-Colon is pictured outside Lindley Hall on the KU campus on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017.

Augelli said he had always supported statehood for Puerto Rico because of the challenges facing an island with few natural resources. But he said an argument can be made for independence, which would allow Puerto Rico to control its ports, fiscal policy and currency valuation.

Gonzalez and Rodriguez-Colon said they have already swung to supporting independence.

“I have always been a supporter of statehood since my high school days, but that is no longer the case,” said Gonzalez in an email from Saudi Arabia, where he is working as a contract consultant during a two-year sabbatical from KU. “That Trump is allowed to do what he has done and what he has said makes it clear that a significant portion of the U.S. population does not care about Puerto Rico.”

Rodriguez-Colon said he still had faith in the American people but that he would be voting for independence the next time the issue was put to a vote.

“I no longer think statehood is in the best interest of the Puerto Rican people,” he said. “The people of Puerto Rico have to fix it without waiting on the American government.”

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