Two years after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico, both the island and its people are still in the midst of recovery. The official death toll was estimated to be around 2,975 people, households went an average of 84 days without electricity, and the damages totaled up to as much as $94.4 billion (Mercy Corps, 2019). Those are the numbers that most mainland Americans heard from the news in the aftermath of the storm, but they are not the only numbers that tell the island’s story. According to Puerto Rico’s Solid Waste Authority, the hurricane also created about “6.2 million cubic yards of waste and debris” (Kennedy, 2017).
The pure quantity of garbage created by the storm was so overwhelming that the island’s pre-existing landfills could not begin to contain it all. As a result, the government was forced to temporarily deposit debris in other places, such as soccer fields (Figure 1) and the grounds of closed public schools (Ocasio, 2018). In addition, some of the larger landfills were often left uncovered and are now overflowing, presenting a risk to the health of nearby residents (Kennedy, 2017).
If archaeology is the study of humans through what they leave behind, then it is also a study of the legacy of our garbage. Although the hurricane was the catalyst for the current crisis in Puerto Rico, the island’s garbage problems “predated the storm but went unnoticed until trash began to stack up outside people’s homes after Maria,” according to Jessica Seiglie of Basuro Cero, “a community organization that seeks alternatives for managing waste.” (Ocasio, 2018). One of the primary problems was that many of the dumps that weren’t regularly maintained found themselves flooded from the downpour, which prevented them from being used for weeks after the hurricane. (Ocasio, 2018). As it turns out, during assessments that began in 2002, the EPA anticipated this problem and ordered 12 of Puerto Rico’s 29 landfills (Figure 2) to close. However, “as of December 2016, the EPA reported that only Aguadilla had closed completely” (U.S. PIRG, 2017).
Unfortunately, closing a landfill costs approximately $200,000 per acre, and Puerto Rico is currently more than $120 billion in debt. With that said, can the island itself really be blamed for this particular problem? After all, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló requested a funding extension from FEMA for “recovery efforts including trash removal,” but the request was still being processed as of a year after the storm. (Ocasio, 2018). Since so many past mistakes and injustices led to the present catastrophe, many people have their sights set on the future. As engineer Ferdinand Quiñones put it when asked about the flooded dumps, “‘This is a legacy that we’re leaving for future generations… in 100 years or 75 years we have to start worrying about rehabilitating those sites’” (Ocasio, 2018).
For more on long-term solutions and how you can help: https://www.sierraclub.org/articles/2018/12/one-year-after-hurricane-maria#
For more on clean-up efforts in Puerto Rico: https://www.waste360.com/waste-reduction/one-year-later-puerto-rico-s-hurricane-recovery-efforts-continue
Kennedy, Merrit, and Migaki, Lauren.
December 24, 2017 After Maria, Puerto Rico Struggles Under The Weight Of Its Own Garbage. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/12/14/570927809/after-maria-puerto-rico-struggles-under-the-weight-of-its-own-garbage, accessed September 14, 2019.
August 28, 2019 Quick Facts: Hurricane Maria’s Effect on Puerto Rico. Mercy Corps, https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/united-states/hurricane-maria-puerto-rico, accessed September 14, 2019
Ocasio, Bianca Padró, and Rosa, Alejandra.
September 21, 2018 A Year Later, Hurricane Maria Debris a Lingering Concern in Puerto Rico. Orlando Sentinel. https://www.orlandosentinel.com/weather/hurricane/puerto-rico-hurricane-recovery/os-puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-year-debris-20180921-story.html, accessed September 14, 2019.
U.S. PIRG Education Fund, and Frontier Group.
October 25, 2017 Solid Waste in the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria. U.S. PIRG. https://uspirgedfund.org/sites/pirg/files/resources/Solid Waste – Hurricane Maria – USPIRG.pdf, accessed September 14, 2019.