Carmen Yulin Cruz Leads Campus Discussion on Moving Forward in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria

Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, speaks in a crowded gymnasium at Brooklyn College. / Lisa Flaugh

Brooklyn College welcomed San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto last Thursday to kick off a full day event titled “Weathering the Storm” to bring attention to the current state of Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands as they recover from Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The day began with an hourlong keynote speech from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto. Cruz gained national attention for being outspoken about federal recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, and for verbally fighting back against President Donald Trump when she was denied a chance to testify to the House Committee on Homeland Security six weeks after disaster struck the island.

On Nov. 1, she was abruptly denied the chance to speak before Congress and instead chose to use a hallway in the U.S. Capital to tell Trump how she felt. “The Trump administration can’t handle the truth,” Cruz said. “Survival cannot be our new way of life.”

On Tuesday, in a busy gymnasium, Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson, Reynaldo Ortiz-Minaya from the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, and Professor María R. Scharróndel Río started the day with speeches inviting and thanking Cruz for visiting Brooklyn College to talk about the affairs in Puerto Rico.

“It was very clear to us, from the very beginning, that this was about saving lives,” Cruz began, as she explained the moments when she stepped outside to see San Juan after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

“When I said that we are dying over here and you’re killing us with your bureaucracy and your inefficiency, I wasn’t being dramatic,” she continued, after sharing with the audience that residents in her town are starting to lose power from their backup generators, affecting those with medical needs, such as those that rely on oxygen respirators. There are also residents with asthma that have been without medicine.

“I was merely telling the world [what people from Puerto Rico have told me] ‘if anyone can hear us, please help.’ It’s been 72 days, and we count from Hurricane Irma, not Maria, since [a resident’s] mother has not had any running water or electricity […] and as we started doing the job of reconstruction, I started to notice one thing that I want to share with you,” Cruz said to the students and professors that were packed into the gym. “You cannot rebuild, you have to transform.”

Other important topics in her keynote included her criticism of Trump and of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“FEMA was telling us to register via Internet […] now I want you to understand that there was no power, there was no communications, there were no phones, and there certainly wasn’t any Internet and FEMA is telling everybody ‘register via internet or call on the phone’ […] and this may seem amazing but the stark contrast of what we were seeing and what we were experiencing and what was being told to you was a sheer abomination. You are being fed up a story that wasn’t real.”

“Who grades themselves in a humanitarian crisis?” she asked, referring to Donald Trump, who deflected criticisms of his disaster response by saying he’d give his reaction an “A plus.” “It should never be enough! You know that Carly Simon song, ‘you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you?’ Well you’re so vain, you probably think this hurricane is about you!”

She implored to students that they stop being politically correct and they stop being nice and focus on the truth.

Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, speaks in a crowded gymnasium at Brooklyn College. / Lisa Flaugh

After Cruz finished her hourlong speech and accepted a few questions from the audience, the full-day event continued with panels titled “Feeding Our People,” “Race, Sexuality and Disaster Response,” and “(Re)Building Resilient Communities.”

Speaking on the panel for “(Re)Building Resilient Communities” was Jodie Roure, a tenured Associate Professor at John Jay of Criminal Justice and also a participant in seeking recruitment of doctors and nurses to volunteer in relief efforts in Puerto Rico. Roure and her children considered Puerto Rico their home, until her children were displaced from the storm and had to come to the U.S. to continue their schooling. Since Hurricane Maria, Roure has flown back and forth, continuing to teach at John Jay, and returning to Puerto Rico with volunteer doctors, nurses and medicine.

“People need to remember that Puerto Rico gave away provisions and provided aid during Hurricane Irma to the surrounding islands and the Lesser Antilles,” Professor Roure stated. “Giving away those provisions made us more vulnerable. And it was good to give away those provisions because people needed them. That’s a humanitarian effort that you do. You do that when you are in a crises. Then comes Maria. And it devastates the majority of the island.”

“So today, despite the reports that you read that we have 50% of electricity, that’s the ability to produce,” Roure continues. “Not the ability to deliver. Many people in Puerto Rico don’t have food, they don’t have electricity and they don’t have portable water. They are living in sewage, black running aguas negras (black water). […] I’m watching FEMA soldiers stockpiling their rooms with water and food that I’m not able to get, and not to be selfish or self-centered, to my own two children or to the elderly that are living in my apartment complex that are disabled and can’t get anything.”

Roure continued to explain a very dire situation that occurred in Puerto Rico and was able to share her eyewitness reports of FEMA and other help that would eventually reach the island. “‘Maybe tomorrow, after the hurricane, or the day after the hurricane, FEMA will come and there will be some provisions or somewhere where I can get something.’ This is what I’m thinking,” Roure said. “And there was no FEMA. For one day. For two days. For nine days. There was no water, there was no food, there was nothing… There was no American Red Cross. There was no help. You couldn’t get into the convention center because it was armed military that didn’t allow you to get in.”

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