We end today’s show where we began the week: in Puerto Rico. Doctors say the island’s health system remains crippled two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, leaving more than 90 percent of the island without electricity and half of its residents without drinking water. That’s at least according to statistics published by FEMA on Wednesday. But on Thursday, FEMA removed data about access to drinking water and electricity in Puerto Rico from its website. Democracy Now!’s Juan Carlos Dávila is on the ground in Puerto Rico, and this week he managed to make it to the island of Vieques to speak with residents of the area that the U.S. Navy used as a bombing range for decades. Since the 1940s, the Navy used nearly three-quarters of the island for bombing practice, war games and dumping old munitions. The bombing stopped after a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience, but the island continues to suffer. The Navy says it will take until 2025 to remove all the environmental damage left by more than 60 years of target practice. Juan Carlos filed this report from Vieques in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show where we began the week: in Puerto Rico. Doctors say the island’s health system remains crippled two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, leaving more than 90 percent of Puerto Rico without electricity and half of its residents without drinking water. Well, that’s at least according to statistics published by FEMA on Wednesday. But on Thursday, FEMA removed data from its website about access to drinking water and electricity in Puerto Rico.
Well, Democracy Now!’s Juan Carlos Dávila is on the ground in Puerto Rico. And this week he managed to make it to the island of Vieques to speak with residents of the area that the U.S. Navy used as a bombing range for decades. Since the ’40s, the Navy used nearly three-quarters of the island for bombing practice, war games, dumping old munitions and napalm. The bombing stopped after a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Among those who got arrested was, oh, the current Congressman Luis Gutiérrez. He got arrested twice in Vieques, protesting it being used as bombing target. But the island now continues to suffer. The Navy says it will take until 2025 to remove all the environmental damage left by more than 60 years of target practice. Juan Carlos filed this report from Vieques in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: Like most residents of Puerto Rico, the people of Vieques have been struggling with shortages of water, food and medicine since Hurricane Maria made landfall. We visited the island on Wednesday, without knowing what we can find. Telephones, cellphones and internet service is not functioning in Vieques. And the only way in and out of the island is either by boat or plane. We began our visit by speaking to community leader Robert Rabin.
ROBERT RABIN: Vieques is a particular place with particular problems. The U.S. military presence on Vieques for over half a century made Vieques—put Vieques in a very vulnerable situation. Today, for instance, I mean, that problem of poverty, the—over 72 percent of Vieques community lives below the poverty line. And, you know, some studies indicate that the Navy presence here for over half a century meant the loss of over $100 million a year in possible income for Vieques, if it had been able to develop a normal economy. And this is compared to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
You know, the Navy owes the people of Vieques. The federal government owes the people of Vieques, you know, a complete reconstruction of this community, not just because of Hurricane Maria, but in light of this hurricane, in the aftermath of this hurricane, the federal government of the United States owes at least to Vieques to make sure every single family here is healthy, fine, has a good solid house, and that there’s economic development happening here on the island, without a doubt.
JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: As we drove around Vieques, we witnessed dozens of houses completely destroyed. Unconfirmed estimates are that hundreds of houses are uninhabitable. During the afternoon, we went to the shelter, Dale la Mano a Puerto Rico, in the neighborhood of Las Marías, where some residents told their stories to us. This is Edwin Acosta.
EDWIN ACOSTA: [translated] I have a concrete house, but it had a wooden roof. Although it was secured, everything was gone. We lost everything—furniture, everything that was inside the house. I was surprised. I thank God because these people welcomed us here, and they take good care of us. But I miss being in my house, really. Any help I can get to return to my house would be the most important thing right now.
HEIDY JULIETTE TORRES RIVERA: [translated] My name is Heidy Juliette Torres Rivera. When the disaster arrived, I was surprised, because I’ve never experienced anything like this. Many houses were lost. Many families right now have no home. My house doesn’t have a roof at this moment. The beds are wet. Everything was lost. My sisters lost their houses. The families that lost everything, that don’t have food and clothes, they lost everything, and it’s very hard.
JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: Another concern some Viequenses have after Hurricane Maria is how the contamination from the U.S. Navy might have spread, worsening the already severe health problems that the residents of the island face. Again, community leader Robert Rabin.
ROBERT RABIN: Well, the hurricane moved in with a gigantic tidal wave sweeping directly over the bombing range. You know, many of us who are cancer patients—right?—and I include myself—we’re certainly concerned that this is going to bring more toxics into our immediate environment, and as well as creating serious danger for people who are in the water, particularly fishermen, other people hired on boats, or just people who go into the water.
JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: Fishermen of Vieques said that Hurricane Maria caused an unprecedented rise in tides. Carlos “Prieto” Ventura went to look for his fishing boat inland, about a mile away from where it was originally anchored.
CARLOS ”PRIETO” VENTURA: [translated] We took the boat to secure it at the bay. It is a very enclosed bay. This vessel had a 300-pound anchor, with another anchor that was 30 feet long with a two-inch-thick rope. Nevertheless, it is here, almost a mile away from the place where it was anchored. It passed over mangroves eight feet tall and arrived on firm land here next to an area of thorn trees. It was dragged by what I understand was the hurricane tide and winds.
And just as it was dragged, the storm could also have dragged any contaminant elements that our island could have. I think that the bombs, because of their aerodynamic form, are difficult to move. But without a doubt, the contamination from them, the material that was exposed at the moment of the hurricane tide, could have reached miles and miles away from where it was originally located. We all know, we Viequenses, that in any place of our island we can find bombs, toxic waste from their practice, scrap metal, etc., among other things they’ve not told us, anything like that, which could have been around. Only God knows where they can be now. That is, let’s say, like a box of surprises. Now we really don’t know where they could be.
AMY GOODMAN: Special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Juan Carlos Dávila for that report from Vieques, Puerto Rico, with help from Edwin Velazquez.
And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! co-host Juan González will be speaking tonight in Berkeley, California, at 7:30 p.m. at Pegasus Books Downtown. Next week, he’ll be speaking at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; that’s next [Friday]. And on Friday night and Saturday, we’ll both be speaking at the State University of New York in Albany. You can check our website for details.