Revisiting Past Hurricanes in Puerto Rico

Smitten Puerto Rico: Havoc Wrought by Cyclone and Flood in our New Possession, Harper & Brothers, New York, History Miami, 1899

In the midst of hurricane season, one can easily become overwhelmed with worry and anxiety thinking about the catastrophic effects of tropical storms. Media and news outlets during these times try to keep the public on alert and express what kind of preventative measures people should take in order to avoid any major harms or damages. It seems that it was only recently that we escaped our past hurricane season of 2017, keeping in mind the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria, the first category 5 hurricane to hit the entire island in 85 years, falls into a long list of devastating hurricanes within Puerto Rican history, with some of them documented as early as the 16th century. With the relevance of Hurricane Maria and its coverage in media outlets one may wonder how hurricanes were discussed in historical newspapers. Puerto Rican newspapers, such as La Gazeta (1806-1902), La Democracia (1890-1948) and La Correspondencia (1890-1943) provide interesting insights on the past major storms that affected the island ; including the ways in which they were discussed and regarded by the Puerto Rican press.

Take for example a decree posted in a November issue of La Gazeta that recalls a hurricane that made landfall on the island on October 29, 1867. The decree exclaims that in the capital of San Juan, Puerto Rican officials, including Sr. Don José María Marchesi, met at La Fortaleza to discuss the conflicts surrounding hurricane damages and relief efforts.  The hurricane mentioned in this decree is in fact hurricane San Narciso, a storm that caused approximately 211 deaths on the island due to flooding and about 13 million escudos (the Spanish currency at the time) in damages. It is important to note that hurricanes and tropical storms were named after saint days during this period.

Snippet from La Gazeta- November 7, 1867

The harmful effects of the hurricane are reflected in the words of the decree with mention of suffering families that “present themselves at the doors of our homes to beg for bread in order to feed themselves”. Agricultural damages are also mentioned, with a short testimony made by a farmer in the town of Manatí proclaiming that his life feels reduced to that of the animals he cares for.

Snippet from La Gazeta- November 7, 1867

The next page of the issue shows a table that the town mayors of Puerto Rico would have filled out in order to calculate all the damages and losses from the storm. The table includes sections for tallying the total number of structural damages, lost products, lost farm animals and, ultimately, deaths.

Table from La Gazeta- November 7, 1867

Hurricane Narciso occurred during a time when Puerto Rico was still under Spanish rule. It wasn’t until 1898, with the results of the Spanish-American War, that Puerto Rico became a United States territory. The following year, Puerto Rico faced another major hurricane, San Ciriaco. San Ciriaco made landfall on August 8, 1899, causing approximately 3,369 deaths and an estimated 35,889,013 dollars in damages. The intense storm and its aftermath were detailed in an issue of La Correspondencia. The “Temporal” part of the issue is divided into sections with the some of the towns of Puerto Rico, including Arecibo, Guayama, Ciales and Yabucoa, describing the storm and local damages. Some of the sections are brief, with simple documentation, while others are much lengthier with graphic testimonies from the island’s citizens, including one from Manuel Cerecedo.

Snippet from La Correspondencia- August 14, 1899

Translation: “I was in a wooden house with deputy Dominguez, two more officers from the island’s police force, and another two men, Diego Melendez, clerk of the establishment “Bonin & Co.” and Carlos Spencer, clerk of “Mayol & Co.”, both located in Ponce. At 8 in the morning the zinc roof of the church had blown away. The island police had already gone out through the town offering any aid they could give in order to fulfill their humanitarian duties. When the hurricane lashed out more aggressively onto the house where we were taking refuge, the one located in front of the church, I told my companions ‘men, to the plaza’ and we immediately ran. The wind elevated us more than ten meters and as we fell unto the plaza, the house fell too. One of the men had sunk with it, but was able to save himself in a basement. The rest of us saved ourselves under some benches. A woman ran with desperation with a small girl in her arms and pleading for help. I went to help the woman and when she handed me the child, a beam flew through and killed her. I was able to save the child under the bench where my other companion was.”

San Ciriaco is the first hurricane Puerto Rico experienced as a United States territory. Thus, as scholar Staurt B. Schwartz points out in his book Sea of Storms, the hurricane tested the political future of the island, since there were still speculations about its sovereignty. The aftermath of the hurricane was quite brutal as the economy suffered from the loss of crops, especially coffee, and with a large number of the island’s population left homeless.

The Military Governor of Puerto Rico during that time did issue a remission of taxes on the island, but the United States did not establish official funds for hurricane relief. As a result, a charity program was manifested in the United States, an act that Schwartz interprets as a political move to demonstrate the nation’s efficiency towards Puerto Rico. Nonetheless, the charity funds were given to plantation owners, rather than to the victims and those left destitute by the storm.

Some newspaper sections seem to praise the United States for their aid, such as one found in La Correspondencia.

Snippet from La Correspondencia- August 28, 1899

Translation: “The campaigns held in a majority of the American press in favor of Puerto Rico is truly beautiful. All of them want and ask with insistence and bravery that the whole nation come together and offer help and aid to the territory of Puerto Rico, devastated by the horrendous hurricane that took place on August 8th. Despite the exclusive fame and the materialism enjoyed by the American people, it is true that their humanitarian and charitable sentiments have fervent admirers here. “

Other writers, however, are far more critical. In an issue of La Democracia, under the section of “Ante el Problema” the writer urges the reader to not completely despair, but at the same time to not be fooled by false illusions. Instead, the writer wants the reader to find a balance between the two poles in the midst of San Ciriaco’s devastating aftermath. The writer explains that with the island’s current state of ruin, if its “new metropolis” doesn’t do anything to help, the island would “perish without remedy”. Additionally, the writer brings to light that millions are needed to rebuild the several farms that are essential to Puerto Rico’s economy in producing coffee, sugar and other crops, and that relief funds should go directly to the poor.

Snippet from La Democracia- August 25, 1899
Snippet from La Democracia- August 25, 1899

Other articles are more politicized, as one from La Democracia demonstrates.  The writer, in this case, tells audiences to worry more about the “social cyclone”, meaning the state in which the island finds itself as a United States territory and with the “tree of autonomy” blown away, rather than the “physical cyclone”.

Snippet from La Democracia- August 19, 1903
Snippet from La Democracia- August 19, 1903

In all, these newspaper examples show parts of Puerto Rico’s long history of dealing with tropical storms and hurricanes. While some cases are unique, others seem quite relevant to the present, giving the impression that history repeats itself or situations never seem to change. With this new hurricane season, one can only hope for the best and safety for all.

 

**Versíon en español se encuentra aquí: Revisitando huracanes del pasado en Puerto Rico**

 

References:

Salivia, Luis A. (Luis Alfredo). 1972. Historia de los temporales de puerto rico y las antillas, 1492 a 1970. [2. ed. rev. y aumentada. ed. San Juan, P. R: Editorial Edil.

Schwartz, Stuart B. Puerto Rico’s hurricane maría proves once again that natural disasters are never natural. in History Newsnetwork, Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, George Washington University [database online]. 2018 [cited May 15 2018]. Available from https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/167090.

———. 2015. Sea of storms : A history of hurricanes in the greater caribbean from columbus to katrina. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

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