Puerto Ricans mark anniversary of Hurricane Maria in West Palm

Hundreds of people gathered in West Palm Beach for a rally and vigil in the Meyer Amphitheater Saturday on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico.

A study released by George Washington University with the Puerto Rican government stated that 2,975 fatalities were caused by the storm. President Donald Trump, however, claimed the total was inflated to make him look bad. 

“What happened a year ago in Puerto Rico is a disgrace to this country and how we treat people,” said Ingrid Ayala, a Cuban-Colombian from Florida. “Puerto Rico is U.S. soil, at least in this point in time. We should have done better, we needed to have done better, and we need to be doing better now.”

Ayala said she and supports efforts seeking housing for those forced to move to the mainland and full repairs to the still-broken roofs and windows on the island. 

The number of Puerto Ricans in Florida has grown significantly since the hurricane. The catastrophic storm caused $45 billion to $95 billion  in damages, according to numbers released by Moody Analytics. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that 18,013 people moved to Florida, the highest number of evacuees in the country. 

“We know that hurricanes and natural disasters will come, the question is, what are we going to do to ensure that we are going to do better next time,” said Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor, addressing the crowd. “Whether it is in Puerto Rico, or whether it is here in the state of Florida which is home to the highest number of Puerto Ricans outside of the island of Puerto Rico, we have to be friends. Always.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) also attended the rally.

“You can’t leave food rotting on the docks and not have a transportation plan, you can’t not have gasoline pre-positioned for a major hurricane, all the things that FEMA did, that they treated Puerto Rico so poorly,” he said.

Nelson said he was disappointed in Trump’s reactions.  

“How much more insults do [Puerto Ricans] have to take after being treated like they have? A year after the hurricane, that’s what this is all about. Never again,”  he said.

Six months after the storm, 121,000 residents were still without power. On June 1, which marked the beginning of Puerto Rico’s hurricane season, 11,000 remained without electricity. Puerto Rico has restored all power on the island only about a month ago.

Norberto Torres Jr. is an Orlando resident originally from San Juan.

“Being the one-year anniversary of what occurred, it’s troubling that now they’re saying that it was 3,000 fatalities, and that people are still suffering and going through discomfort with the blue tarps on their roofs.” said Torres. “A year later? It shouldn’t be this way.”

He said that voting is more important than ever, especially for the Puerto Ricans living in the mainland. 

“I’m a registered voter, and it’s all depending on what candidate is going to have a higher agenda in reference to Puerto Rico,” said Torres.

Diana Umpierre is a Puerto Rican who lives in Pembroke Pines and is an organizer for the Everglades Restoration Campaign and Sierra Club of Florida. She attended the rally to advocate for environmental issues.

“All these issues that happened with the loss of electricity, which led to death, which led to people getting sick, which even led to suicides, all of that had to do with an energy system, an energy grid that is unreliable and that is based on dirty fuels,” she said.

In addition to the political figures, other organizations in attendance included: Boricua Vota, Alianza for Progress,  Vamos 4 PR Action,  the Miami Climate Alliance and the Family Action Network Movement.

Umpierre held up signs of photographs she took while in her hometown of Caguas, Puerto Rico two months ago. The photos included homes without roofs, doors or windows, with the caption “#1YearAfterMaria.”

Diana Umpierre with her signs (Photo by Sherrilyn Cabrera)

“I am upset, because we have somebody in the White House who spends his time Tweeting around that our government is corrupt, without looking in the mirror and seeing their own corruption that is happening under his administration,” she said. “I don’t doubt that there are good people working in government, but he right now has a lot to do with the help that Puerto Rico is not getting, and certainly the lack of respect that he is not showing to our people.”