After enduring Hurricane Harvey in Houston this August, I couldn’t imagine that anything worse could possibly happen. I remember crying once it was safe to walk outside of my apartment and silently praying that nothing like that would impact the Gulf Coast again in the foreseeable future.
After moving to Houston from the United States Virgin Islands in 2013, I had come to call this beautiful Bayou City “home away from home.” I couldn’t imagine watching a place I cared about deeply endure devastation that way again.
My worst nightmare soon became a reality when a hurricane by the name of Irma began forming off of the Cape Verde islands and headed right for the Caribbean, where I was born and raised. My family and friends were still back home, and the feeling of helplessness I felt during Harvey returned with the realization that there was nothing I could do.
As the days went by, Irma rapidly intensified and quickly became the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. My anxiety became uncontrollable, and I immediately began calling relatives to make sure they were preparing. I also surfed through various news networks to get whatever updates I could and soon found something even more heartbreaking than the impending impact of the storm itself.
On every channel and news site I turned to, the coverage of Hurricane Irma seemed to be directly correlated to its projected impact on the state of Florida, with little to no mention of the dozens of Caribbean islands the storm would surely devastate days before affecting the state ― including the U.S Virgin Islands and the unincorporated U.S territory of Puerto Rico. I read through report after report and watched multiple videos where statements like “There is no immediate threat to the U.S. until it nears Florida” were made.
I was not the only one watching. More than 100,000 U.S citizens in the U.S Virgin Islands and 3.4 million more in Puerto Rico watched as numerous newscasts practically dismissed the impact this category 5 hurricane was sure to cause to our beloved homes.
To be raised on a Caribbean island all my life, saying the pledge to the American flag, and have that same citizenship continuously dismissed as non-existent in the event of a catastrophic storm is heartbreaking.
This was not the first time we had witnessed our dismissal during hurricanes. Of the dozens I’ve experienced in my lifetime, many have gone by with little to no mention of our territory via national media. It always begins and ends the same way. And yet with limited local media outlets and sources, residents relied on mainland U.S. news sources to provide them with regular updates on what to expect of Irma. Instead, they were forced to listen to the familiar reports of concern for the continental United States hundreds of miles away. Those of us living in the continental U.S. felt horrified, worried for our families and unsure of what to expect. To be raised on a Caribbean island all my life, saying the pledge to the American flag, and have that same citizenship continuously dismissed as non-existent in the event of a catastrophic storm is heartbreaking.
When hurricanes occur, the people of the Caribbean cannot just evacuate. There are no roads leading them away from harm. There are no airlines volunteering to lose profit by shuttling them away. They have no choice but to sit and wait the storms out. There are no bordering states where supplies can be dropped off in a matter of hours. While the terror of roofs blowing away, rain pouring down, trees falling and the wind howling at their doors were loud enough to keep them on edge for hours, the relative silence of the media days before the storm was even more deafening.
Today, dozens of Caribbean islands, including the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, were devastated by Hurricane Irma. While the U.S Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico both send their prayers for the state of Florida as we did to the residents of Houston, we can only hope that the United States soon chooses to remember us as well. We were here before the hurricane, and with pride and hope we will remain long after the storm is gone.