Climate change contributes directly to the formation of stronger, wetter storms that move more slowly over inland populated areas.1 During 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused great hardship and trauma that Puerto Ricans and those who care about Puerto Rico will never forget.
In addition to storms, Puerto Rico faces other climate-related events, such as extreme heat, flooding, erosion, air pollution, sea level rise, and droughts, which affect disaster response and recovery efforts. The international attention following the hurricanes also unveiled many social determinants of health that Puerto Rican communities already faced, such as systemic oppression, poverty, inequality, and lack of political power.2 Some of these determinants are also the reasons why thousands of citizens have been protesting in the streets of Puerto Rico recently.
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and lived there until 2009. My parents and many loved ones still live on the island. Although I was not there when the hurricanes hit, I felt their impact, perhaps not physically but vicariously. First was the agony of not knowing for 2 weeks whether my father and his wife were safe after Maria, then the guilt of not being there or do more to help. I listened to stories of how this disaster affected the lives of my family, friends, and the communities I had the privilege to support through my post-Maria volunteer work.
As a member of CrearConSalud, Inc., an organization dedicated to mental health awareness and education, I was able to work with several underserved communities, mostly rural, in the process of healing and recovering emotionally after the hurricane. Unfortunately, Puerto Ricans were not only recovering from a climate disaster. They were—and still are—coping with an ongoing socioeconomic crisis, the consequences of the island’s long-term colonial status, and the effects of man-made climate change long before Maria touched our shores.
Hurricane Maria was a turning point in which the last string keeping many conditions and emotions on the island from falling apart broke. On the other hand, it was also the wakeup call many Puerto Ricans needed to become active in social justice efforts, both on the island and abroad. Some Puerto Ricans were able to use this traumatic event as a catalyst to transform their communities to become sustainable, stronger, and self-sufficient. They used the lessons of Maria to re-invent themselves and to prove false the assumption that “Puerto Rico needs to depend on another country to thrive.” Their story serves as a wonderful example of transformational resilience.
Emotional phases of disaster
Mental health experts have described the emotional phases that communities typically go through after the impact of a disaster (Figure)3:
Educating community leaders about these phases has been a fundamental part of the workshops we provide to support the emotional recovery process. Many feel reassured and more grounded to know that they are not alone in going through their emotional roller coaster rides and that they are not “crazy” or mentally ill because of what they are feeling.
Puerto Rico Se Levanta, or “Puerto Rico Rises,” was a slogan used by survivors to help foster a sense of resilience during the first 3 months after Hurricane Maria. It also aptly describes the heroic and honeymoon emotional phases that we collectively went through during this period, both on the island and within the diaspora.
The honeymoon phase >>
Dr Cabán-Alemán reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
1. Hall TM, Kossin JP. Hurricane stalling along the North American coast and implications for rainfall. Climate Atmospheric Science. 2019;2:17.
2. Compton MT, Shim RS, eds. The Social Determinants of Mental Health. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2015.
3. DeWolfe DJ. Training Manual for Mental Health and Human Service Workers in Major Disasters. 2nd ed. Rockville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services. 2000. HHS Publication No. ADM 90-5382000.
4. Doppelt B. From Me to We: The Five Transformational Commitments Required to Rescue the Planet, Your Organization, and Your Life. Abingdon, UK: Routledge; 2017.