Elba began telling the story of the storm that ravaged the tiny island of Vieques with one word: “Wow!”
When we met seventy-nine days had passed since Hurricane Maria made landfall on the storied island with gorgeous beaches, two bioluminescent bays and a history of abuse in the hands of the US. Everything she and her community experienced was still raw and painful to recount. But the health care activist said this was the kind of story too important not to share with the world.
The storm pulled out the air conditioners from her home and inundated the entire house ruining all her furniture and clothing. She was not there to see it happen having decided to weather the hurricane with a friend. When she returned the next day to her house the destruction overwhelmed her with sadness. She said it was a total disaster. She cried not just for her loss, but for the entire island.
With no electricity and cell phone service, no way to communicate with the outside world, and no mode of transport to leave the tiny island located island six miles from the coast of Puerto Rico, the days and weeks following the storm were a nightmare she said. No food, no ferry service, no planes, and no way to communicate with the world. Those were really dark and scary days according to Elba.
All the streets were flooded. Mounds of sand were left when the water receded. Uprooted trees and remnants of whatever the hurricane’s winds brought were strewn everywhere. Most of her neighbors lost everything, cars, homes, small businesses. Some are living with friends but mostly they are all leaving to Florida, Connecticut , and other states.
In the middle of sharing the story, Elba, the Executive Director of Vieques En Rescate, a non profit community organization that helps residents with cancer, cried and cried. For Elba there has been no time to mourn. She cries in spurts she says. She feels a huge urgency to care for cancer patients that her organization helps and who are in more need than she is–the 30-year old mother of two babies with breast cancer and the more than fifty other clients that needed desperate chemo treatment. An angel donor gave the foundation a working phone, the mayor lent them a temporary car for a few weeks and they were able to get emergency space in the ferry to get some desperate clients medical treatment on the big island during the first month of the storm.
The only hospital on the island was totaled and in any event, they don’t provide chemo services.
Vieques is a cautionary tale when colonialism, capitalism, and climate change collide.
Five years ago she and a group of women started Vieques En Rescate after years of being played by the American Cancer Society. She said they were part of the local chapter of the American Cancer Society. Every year the big guns arrived to Vieques and hosted fabulous fundraisers. Then, they took the funds they raised to the US. When Vieques cancer patients needed to access the funds, it was very difficult if at all. Sick of being used, a group decided to sever ties and start a local association and do their own fundraisers. The organization provides ancillary services to the men and mostl women who are undergoing chemo treatment. It also offers nutritional supplements, sometimes food, help with medicines. But mostly she says, “we give them love.”
These are the three women who power up Vieques En Rescate:
Cancer is a huge problem on the island that the US Navy occupied and used as a bombing range and testing ground for over sixty years ending in 2003. Though Elba doesn’t have the hard data that links the decades of live bombing and munition testing by the US Navy to the isle’s high cancer rates, she certainly has the people who are sick with breast and other cancers, and with pulmonary diseases and asthma, and diabetes. The humans she cares for she says are evidence enough for a link.
In 1941, the US Navy squeezed families into the middle of the island, robbing them of their precious coastlines, and then proceeded to practice live bombing as children went to school, fishermen went to sea, women went to church. Sometimes the US Navy invited other countries such as France, to live bomb and train in Vieques. Years of local protests and with the help from the main island and pressure from the Puerto Rican Diaspora and their allies finally pushed out the Navy in 2003. Then the W and other high end hotels moved in but didn’t really employ the mostly black residents. Viequenses can’t catch a break.
There are dangerous remnants of toxic chemicals in the environment–large chunks of the island and surrounding waters are an EPA Superfund Site, and listed on the National Priority Cleanup List. Residents are waiting for the clean up to begin and also, reparations for their suffering.
The island is hobbled by inconsistent ferry service which is why residents say they feel like prisoners in their own home.
In fact, when we visited the island we got a taste of the chaos. The ferry was scheduled to depart at 4:30 pm but left at 3 pm with a few passengers who happened to be there. When asked port officials said the captain felt like leaving. We left at 9:30 pm after being attacked by huge mosquitoes. After the storms left came the insect infestation and we had donated a dozen bottles of natural bug spray to islanders thinking we would be back to my home on the mainland.
“We are prisoners on this island. We have no other mode of transport. A six minute plane to Ceia is $45 but locals can’t afford that. We are at the mercy of the local Port Authority. There is no set schedule. There is no respect. We feel forgotten and its not just now. All the administrations of the mainland have had Vieques as an afterthought, if that. They don’t know or care about our necessities.”
“I heard that there is a group of women from Loiza who are planning a class action lawsuit for human rights violations. We want to join them. Our basic human rights are being abused and this has got to stop.”
Words: Sandra Guzmán
Photos: Sandra Guzman & Rebecca Gitana Torres