Trash: How Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in the Dumps

This morning I woke up like any other Tuesday morning, where after showering, and getting dressed, and making my bed, I threw on my flip-flops. I headed downstairs to the kitchen where I pulled together the trash, and I gathered the recyclables. Still half asleep, I tossed them into the cans on the side of the house, and I dragged them to the street corner. After waving hello to Mrs. Nelson across the street, I made my way back inside to grab my cup of coffee and to head to work. It was the same Tuesday morning that plays out most weeks. Nothing unusual, nothing I would have thought twice about, except if I had been waking up on a Tuesday in Utuado or Yabucoa just one year earlier my day would have transpired very differently.

On Tuesday, September 19, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall across several Carribean islands, including Puerto Rico. The storm, which was the deadliest and most intense of 2017, left catastrophic damage across Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Of course, electric and water supplies became immediate priorities, yet another looming task in recovery was undoubtedly solid waste and debris management.

Following major disasters like Hurricane Maria, communities have to clamber to address their immediate needs while trying to gradually put together the building blocks required to return to their pre-disaster quality of life. My Tuesday morning routine of merely taking my garbage out was all of a sudden a lot more complicated for millions of Puerto Ricans.

What I fail to understand as I drowsily make my way to the curb once a week is that there are extensive plans and procedures in place to ensure my life and home are trash free, and better yet that my municipality recycles a lot of that waste. Though perhaps my appreciation isn't as high because the sanitation strikes of the 1960s and 1970s are just a bit before my time, the pictures of mountains of garbage lining the streets of Manhatten are good reminders of just how much we take for granted.

When you add in the 155-175 mph winds that Maria brought across the Caribbean, a complicated service becomes a near-impossible one. Moreover, the need for just getting stuff thrown away grows expediently. After the 2004 hurricane season, Seminole County, Florida,

processed more vegetative debris than they had in total over the entire previous decade.

So how do communities deal with clean-up? Well, as most successful things do, it starts with a plan. Communities work to create solid waste emergency plans that help address both the immediate and the more long-term challenges of disaster recovery. As many community leaders will tell you when facing a natural disaster, if nothing else, "it's a place to start." Puerto Rico's Solid Waste Authority estimates that Hurricane Maria created 6.2 million cubic yards of waste and debris. Without a plan, it's an insurmountable task, particularly on an island. Where does it go? What about the bugs it attracts? And the water it could contaminate? Quickly, what seems like just my Tuesday morning chore, is a substantial public health risk for over 3.3 million people!

Alas, groups like RCAP's northeast region, RCAP Solutions, are working to help communities like those in Puerto Rico recover and prepare for disasters. On August 30, 2018, over one hundred representatives from across the island came together in Puerto Rico for a Taller Para El Manejo De Desperdicios Sólidos Antes Durante Y Después De Un Desastre (Workshop on Solid Waste Management Before, During and After a Disaster) training.

As storms like Maria seem to be occurring more and more frequently and with even more intensity, these activities help communities prepare, put the public at ease, at least a little, and ultimately ensure the public health of our neighbors and friends. Because when it can be just your mindless Tuesday morning task, it means someone worked hard to make it so.