Climate disaster death tolls dwarf those of September 11, 2001. New Yorkers, myself included, would never think to diminish, downplay, the losses of that day in the World Trade Center. Yet the United States overlooks immense numbers of bodies of color/ lives lost to tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Like hurricanes, death does not discriminate. We cannot place more emphasis/ value on some lives over others.
Climate change and colonialism affect us all.
-From my essay “Liberation Lessons in Light,”
Voices from Puerto Rico Post-Hurricane María,
edited by Iris Morales, Red Sugarcane Press 2019
September was dragged in by the spiraling winds of Dorian. A tropical storm whose path was predicted to enter miles off the coast of Cabo Rojo, then right over us on the west coast, then down the center of the main island, then the island’s east end, and finally Culebra and Vieques. Over the course of a day the whole archipelago had been placed on alert, had run to put up tormenteras, had stocked up on gas, had stocked up on supplies and groceries.
My initial response to the warnings was to not heed them. If I didn’t take them seriously, it wouldn’t come, I believed. My body was still in shock from the last time and resisted going through the motions yet again. But the night before the expected landfall I looked across the living room to see toys and books everywhere, remembering the 100 books María soaked, that I was still setting in the sun to dry a week later hoping to inhibit the mold growth that was already underway. So I started cleaning. Covered the boys’ bookshelf next to the previously blown window in heavy duty plastic bags that I taped up. I never could understand why they told you to secure all important papers in plastic. Well I understand now. I have seen horizontal rain spray straight through window seams and louvres, rain down your refrigerator. I have witnessed it raining in my kitchen, roof intact, windows intact. Water just does magical shit like that.
The news reported awful things for Vieques. Sent us all into panic. Why the island municipalities? Pounded by both Irma and María. But my friends there reported just rain and minimal winds. I thought it was a practical joke. The media fucking with us. The colonial capitalist corporations just getting off on how much money we had dropped in anticipation of this thing. As my body had wished, it didn’t seem to exist.
But the next day it dumped loads of rain on the islands and the east coast. It left a tail like a comet. The waters on the opposite end of the island in Rincón were choppy and gray. The sky that evening had strange bands of clouds like the spirals of the milky way. They covered the gray sky in darker striations that later glowed purple and pink with the setting sun. Some cosmic shit pulling out on the horizon.
Enter the Bahamas.
I had been out the whole day, away from social media. It seems that ever since we lost cell signal for a month after María, the universe knows when to connect me and when not to. I have come to see disconnection not just as an inconvenience in communication but as emotional protection. I couldn’t see what was happening in the Bahamas. Just heard about it later that evening. I refused to see the images like I have never gone back to view images and footage of María after getting our cell signal back a month later, and TV and internet back six months later. I trust I was spared the details for a reason.
The following day it continued to pound against the Bahamas. That evening as I got into bed, I did watch a video on social media of water creeping up into the second floor of a house. I had focused my attention on the water swelling up the stairwell but then caught a glimpse of waves crashing against the glass doors across the room. I turned off the phone, refusing to process what I had seen. But my body had already seen it and though my mind wouldn’t process it, my body would figure out how.
I tried to fall asleep, but my heart wouldn’t have it. The flutters in my throat had graduated into a dull ache around my heart, a tight burning across my chest. I placed my hand over it, rubbed my chest, tried to silence it to no avail. Tried to silence my thoughts, my anxiety. Wouldn’t work. I spent two hours like this knowing that just a few hours later my boys would be waking up for school. I finally got up and grabbed a rose quartz. Pressed it to my heart. Nothing I was doing worked so maybe the crystal might. It literally lessened the pain in my heart and chest. Once that happened, my thoughts crystalized, became more manageable in my mind.
I remember when the window blew out, when we had to leave our little bathroom refuge. I remember skating across wet losas from a kitchen puddle that swelled and spread across the whole living room floor. I remember holding Josef’s 5-year-old hand and he still slipping and sliding across the floor crying. I remember taking refuge in my studio and as soon as we sat down there, I could feel a fever burn from Gabriel’s heart, rising to his head. We couldn’t go back for medicine, so instead I took off my rose quartz necklace, held it to his heart till the burn subsided.
I both could and could not fathom what was happening in the Bahamas. I both can and cannot fathom what is still happening in the Bahamas. Destruction strikes in myriad ways. PTSD triggered for all the ways we suffer, all the loves and things we lose. I know the sustained fear from the sound and uncertainty of the winds. I know when your shelter is left compromised and the first chakra assault of not feeling safe in your own home. Or finding your water reserve depleted from pipes the hurricane cracked. I know the feeling of seeing your drinking water supply dwindling and none to replenish it at the supermarkets. I know this fear but still cannot fathom the level of destruction and fear folks are living through in the Bahamas.
Dorian has left the Bahamas. Gave Florida a good scare, spiraled her way up the east coast. Gave us all a good scare. I remember we all did this. Barbuda. Unfathomable destruction and devastation that we felt in our hearts. Then other places were hit by the same storm, by other storms. Then everyone moved on. People will speak of the Bahamas then move on.
Who speaks of what our planet is seeing? Who speaks of the dangers we are living? Who speaks of the fires, the floods, the winds and how to curtail them?
It is more profitable to keep people dependent on medications to suppress symptoms of illness than it is to heal them. Like battling illness, storm prep is big business. Home insurance industry is booming. The hiker/back packer business went booming with Puerto Ricans stocking up on water filters, freeze-dried fruit, protein bars and solar supplies. Gasoline business is booming with all the generators we are running. Bottled water has become the hottest commodity. It is not in the best interest of the powers that be to address the climate change that has us living through these threats. Even if the storm doesn’t hit us and they never had to spend any money on rescuing us, they’ve already made a ton from scaring the shit out of us, so we run out to buy up everything in preparation.
For all the talk you hear of aid on the media, you never hear anything around sustainability and self-sufficiency. What if we all got solar powered? What if we all grew, harvested, dried and preserved our own food? Collected and filtered our own water. What if we reduced our production of garbage and recycled? What if like our indigenous and African ancestors we planted yuca, ñame and other tubers that remain untouched, protected in the earth once the winds have passed, securing food.
I contemplate the effects of all this. The reading/ writing delay experienced by my nene’s 2nd grade class. They had all missed 5 weeks of school in September/ October of 2017 and when they returned to their kindergarten class, neither one of their two teachers had. Two years later, academically, it seems they haven’t caught up. Recently in the kitchen I shouted, like a kid with a bright idea: Hey! The Puerto Rico school year should start mid-September instead of early August. Mid-September through June like when we were kids in New York. That way, there’s less risk of losing so many school days to a hurricane! Those schools could more easily be used as shelters if they’re empty!
Ivan moved out of the office that rains waterfalls down its windows each storm. I’m moving out of the room I used as an art studio because my boys, especially the tween, need separate bedrooms. I reluctantly plan to set up shop in the water room. But no one moves anything in September. As I took the plastic bags off the boys’ bookshelf a few days ago Ivan warned, “hey, there’s a system out on the Atlantic that’s being monitored. Maybe you should keep those up.” I don’t remember this from last year. Maybe we were just too numb to live looking out for weather systems. Or maybe the Culebrina river, swelling in torrential rains several times over the last weeks, leaving trees peeking out of red waters of temporary lakes, is a reminder of what September brought two years ago.
Seeing an Amazon ad on disaster relief for the Bahamas was a reminder of the almost-sport that giving became post-Maria. I almost threw up with that ad. For however well-meaning some might think, a corporate consumerist entity posting images and suggestions on giving is basically advertising disaster capitalism.
I try to look up the death toll. 50 “official.” I can’t do numbers. Numbers official and unofficial, counted/ uncounted, estimated, assumed, fixed, fudged, convenient and not. Numbers both erasing and revealing. 1 death is too many but if some play by numbers then the death count of September 11 pales in comparison to that of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, or the earthquake in Haiti.
I think back to my midwife when we asked how she would plan her life around anticipated births. I don’t she said. I live life as usual. If a woman happens to go into labor, then I kindly excuse myself from whatever function I happen to be at, but life can’t stop. You can never predict when a woman will go into labor.
Despite projections, Dorian proved that we can’t really predict when and where a hurricane will strike. I become the midwife. Nurturing life, ensuring comfort, security, living and loving, even with the threat of climate change disaster looming.
–Yasmin Hernández is a Brooklyn born and raised artist and writer who rematriated to her parents’ birthplace of Borikén in 2014, where she still lives. Her work is centered on liberation practices. She shares her art at yasminhernandezart.com and her rematriation chronicles at rematriatingboriken.com .