MANHATTAN — While more than 60,000 mostly young people rallied in lower Manhattan to participate in the Global Climate Strike on Sept. 20, environmental and social activists gathered at a nearby branch of Banco Santander on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria to reflect on the threat of climate change and on becoming homeless because of a natural disaster.
On Sept. 20, 2017, Maria struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, leaving an estimated 95 percent of population on the island without electricity, food or health care in its aftermath. The storm took the lives of 4,645, with the belief that the death toll is actually higher.
In Manhattan, the activists performed a demonstration showing the effects of Maria on Puerto Rico. Protesters held blue tarps over their heads and shoveled mulch symbolizing the destruction that hit the island.
Today, 30,000 homes are still covered by blue tarps instead of roofing, and since 2017, an estimated four percent of the population has left the island and relocated to the mainland United States. New York City, home to the largest Puerto Rican population outside the island, has become the new home of so-called “climate refugees.”
Many Puerto Ricans also cite the island’s national debt and poor management of relief efforts as obstacles to rebuilding after Maria.
“We’re in front of Santander because it has played a central role in the difficult recovery efforts that have been happening in Puerto Rico. Santander was one of the banks that helped Puerto Rico gain its debt through its relationships with members of the board that is now ruling Puerto Rico,” said Julio Lopez-Varona, a demonstrator from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Santander spokeswoman Laurie Wright said “assistance to our customers, communities and employees affected by the hurricane” was a “top priority” for the bank, noting that its employee loan program distributed almost $1.4 million to employees affected by the storm and up to $1 million to employees whose homes were damaged.
At the Global Climate Strike, protesters expressed sympathy for the plight of Puerto Rico.
“We need to be able to welcome these people in with open arms, as everybody should be doing, as people did back in biblical times. They’re refugees, we need to help them,” said Heleana Ryan, a senior at St. Savior H.S., Park Slope.
“I’m not Puerto Rican, but I’m here to support,” said Kathleen Nichols, a resident of Kensington who attended the climate march in solidarity with those affected by Maria. “I feel that islands are particularly vulnerable, and we have to pay more attention to how climate change is impacting the populace of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Bahamas, all the islands.”
Ortiz is a digital content writer/producer for DeSales Media Group.