The last week has brought a barrage of media attention to the impact of Hurricane Maria in an already fragile Puerto Rico. The island, after withstanding the strongest storm it has seen in 90 years, is in a humanitarian crisis, with food, water, medication and gas scarce and the physical and societal infrastructure damaged. The need for immediate assistance cannot be overstated.
The effects of the hurricane, though, will be felt well past this initial crisis, when the lines with red containers at the gas stations are gone, the supermarket shelves are stocked again and cell phone service is restored.
Such a high rate of child poverty should already have been considered a crisis, given that the number of children on the island has decreased by nearly a third over the past decade as families have sought to escape deteriorating economic conditions. It is a trend that could accelerate in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
If Puerto Rico has fewer young people, the island will be pressed to have a healthy and productive workforce in the future. Our workforce must not only rebuild now and be ready to face future storms, but also find ways to grow and strengthen Puerto Rico’s economy in every way. The combined issues of a declining child population and child poverty put the island at an economic disadvantage and threaten national security.
The stories of life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina give us enough information to begin forecasting the obstacles that will stand in the way of Puerto Rico’s children, particularly those living in poverty.
Losing homes and possessions will result in housing instability, which will in turn affect school attendance and performance. Trauma from the experience of Hurricane Maria will have an impact on children’s mental health and development.
According to sociologists Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek, every child who survived Katrina ended up in one of three “tracks.” Children whose parents had resources before and after Katrina adapted and at times excelled. Those who had little before the hurricane and lost everything fared the worst, often dropping out of school and sinking into unemployment as adults.
Finally, children who lost everything, but still had an anchoring adult in their lives, experienced what the researchers called a “fluctuating equilibrium,” staying afloat but struggling with depression or anxiety.
What this means for Puerto Rico is that the recovery and rebuilding effort must prioritize children and their families — especially those living in poverty or near-poverty before Maria. It is within our power to protect and lift up the island’s most precious resource — its youth — so that they may become productive members of society and help Puerto Rico to thrive.
And so, as elected leaders and other stakeholders consider the response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, they should do two things above all.
First, continue to monitor Puerto Rico’s recovery after the initial crisis has passed. Do not forget the island’s children, who will benefit greatly once food and water are readily available again and services have been restored, but whose prosperity will depend on long-term rebuilding efforts.
And second, support policies focused on providing pathways to opportunity for children and their families. From strengthening Puerto Rico’s school system to ensuring adequate support for children’s post-hurricane physical and mental health, there will be myriad opportunities to help these children and put them in the position to succeed. Our leaders can and must take those opportunities.
Amanda Rivera Flores is the executive director of the Instituto del Desarrollo de la Juventud (Youth Development Institute), a nonprofit organization based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.