The Unlearned Lesson of Hurricane Maria: A Conversation with Stuart Schwartz

Last week the Puerto Rican government announced the findings of an independent study of the deaths resulting from Hurricane Maria. The official death toll had sat at 64 for months after the September 2017 storm. Now, according to researchers at George Washington University, 2,975 people are believed to have perished, over 1,100 more than died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The new figure only ratchets up the debate over who is to blame and has intensified criticism of the Trump Administration for its response. The cover of the book "Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina" by Stuart B. SchwartzWhen considering Maria’s destruction and the political fracas that has followed, historian Stuart Schwartz takes the long view. The very long view.

His most recent book, Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (Princeton University Press, 2015), makes the case that the devastation wrought by hurricanes over the past half millennium has been shaped by the cultural perceptions and political priorities of those in power. As Schwartz prepares a Spanish-language version of his book, updated to include a discussion of the horrific 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, we spoke about the lessons this history offers us as we head into a future of even deadlier storms.

Stream or download the conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Adam Behrman: What are some of the ways different societies have understood hurricanes over the past 500 years?

Stuart Schwartz: We’ve moved from a providential idea of natural disasters—that is, that they’re somehow used by divinities to instruct or punish us—to a more scientific view of these as geophysical phenomena. But you could argue that in recent times we’ve come back to the idea that they are human produced. Our ideas about global warming have put the blame back on human actions.

When Europeans came to the Caribbean and encountered the hurricanes, they really had nothing in their own experiences or understanding of the world to help them explain them. Hurricanes are a phenomenon of the New World and virtually unknown in Europe. Nothing in the Bible or Aristotle (whom they depended on greatly in the Renaissance) to help them understand them. So early on Europeans turned to the Native peoples of the Americas to learn about these destructive winds.

Over time, because the hurricanes come every year—maybe not to each island, but to the region—it began to undercut the idea that somehow these were punishments for particular sins. The Spainards thought to themselves and asked quite openly if these are acts of an angry god to punish us on this island, why then does the storm hit the next island? And why does God always wait until between June and October to send these storms? So those perceptions began to undercut this idea that these were providential acts and made the Europeans begin to think in other ways.

AB: Did the hurricanes encourage the cultivation of some crops over others?

A man with glasses and grey hair turns his head toward the camera and smiles with the New York skyline in the far distance.

Stuart Schwartz, George Burton Adams Professor of History at Yale University, surveys five centuries of Caribbean hurricanes in his latest book, “Sea of Storms,” which he is preparing to publish in Spanish in a version updated to include a discussion of the devastating storms of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season.

SS: The Tainos understood from their long experience that root crops gave you some protection. Yucca or malanga or sweet potatoes—those things give you a little more security because they were less vulnerable to the hurricanes. Systems of agriculture in places like the Dominican Republican were based on these root crops. And eventually the Europeans learned this as well and mixed their agriculture for foodstuffs between root crops and other crops to have some protection from the storms.

There were a series of hurricanes in Cuba between 1844 and 1846 that destroyed the coffee industry. Coffee planters looking to control their losses sold their slaves to the sugar planters. So the intensification of the sugar economy, to some extent, was a result of the destruction of the coffee economy. The destruction on Martinique of cacao plantation by hurricanes led to the cultivation of other crops that became the basis of the plantation economy there.

AB: How have different governments responded to hurricanes over the years, and which responses seem to work best in helping the largest number of people?

SS: Most of the islands—the ones occupied by the British, the French, the Dutch, the Danes—were given over to individual noblemen or to companies that were developing the islands. They were privatized (or feudalized). So when natural disasters happened in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the government didn’t have much to do with it. They said it’s your problem.

It was really only by the middle of the 18th century when places like Jamaica and Barbados became very productive and valuable with their sugar plantation economies that the government began to see it was to its interest to make sure of the continued health and productivity of those islands. That’s when the government began to respond directly to natural disasters. In the 1770s and 1780s we see large amounts of money given by Parliament to the islands in response to hurricanes.

Since hurricanes come every year, they often arrive just before or after an election and can be used for political purposes.

The one exception to this were the Spanish. The occupation of places like Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic were from the beginning government sponsored and government controlled. So the Spanish quite early on responded to a natural disaster usually not by giving them money for repairs but by forgiving taxes for a period of years.

By the end of the 18th century, all the imperial governments had decided that government response to natural disaster was to their advantage. But then the question was to whom do you give the money? Do you help the planters or the people who’ve lost their home? How do you ensure people won’t take advantage of it? That dominates how people think about relief from the 19th through the middle of the 20th century.

AB: You write that because hurricanes have “no respect for international boundaries or cultural divisions, they offer excellent vantage points to examine the influences of policy, culture, and politics on results close in time.” Could you walk us through how that works?

SS: The bad 1928 storm that Puerto Ricans call the San Felipe hurricane struck there before proceeding to the Bahamas and Florida—first over Fort Lauderdale and then Lake Okeechobee in the center of the state. This was perhaps the worst hurricane Puerto Rico has suffered, killing hundreds of people and destroying the economy. When it struck the interior of Florida, the region was full of West Indian workers brought in to work sugarcane. The warning was insufficient and hundreds of people were drowned; the bodies floated into the Everglades for months afterward. The response in the two places differed considerably. In Florida it even differed between the coast and the inland areas where the foreign cane cutters had been brought in from Jamaica and the Bahamas.

Sepia toned historical photograph of dozens of people stand in a village completely leveled by a hurricane except for a church which stands in front of a mountain in the background.

While Fidel Castro used his response to Hurricane Flora in 1963 to win confidence in his new government, Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier suppressed word of the coming storm in hopes of protecting the island’s tourism industry. Hundreds of Haitians died when villages like Petit-Trou-de-Nippes (pictured here) were leveled by the winds. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In 1963, Hurricane Flora hit Haiti and the Dominican Republic and ripped those places apart. The Haitian government, under Duvalier, gave little attention to the problem and didn’t even announce the arrival of the storm because it didn’t want to scare away tourists. As a result, hundreds of people lost their lives. Then it struck Cuba, which had just gone through the Cuban Revolution and the Missile Crisis. Fidel Castro marshaled an enormous government response. Every resource was turned toward demonstrating to the people the efficiency of the revolution. And it worked. They had very little loss of life given the nature of the storm, and the recovery was much faster. It was a lesson to Fidel, and in a number of speeches later on he said he wanted to use the response to represent the spirit of Cuba all the time. So Cuba has become a model of how relatively poor countries can by preparation and planning prepare for natural disasters. The United Nations now uses the Cuban example.

It has its problems. Cuba doesn’t give you a choice of evacuating if you live near the coast when the storm comes. So it raises questions of a libertarian nature about free will and communal organization. But on the other hand, the effects in terms of loss of life and loss of property have been very positive. Cuba was badly hit by the hurricanes of 2017, but its recovery was much faster than Puerto Rico’s.

The point that’s been made by a number of sociologists is that this isn’t a matter of communism versus capitalism. Socialist Vietnam has a relatively poor record with natural disasters; capitalist Japan has a good record. It’s a matter of the government’s commitment to respond. What resources is it willing to bring to the crisis?

The lesson has not been learned. It’s not the storms themselves that killed these people.

This is one of the problems we have in this country. FEMA has become an agency of Homeland Security. Its interests are in security as much as in relief. That was displayed in the failures in Puerto Rico and certainly in Katrina. Terrorist attacks are a real threat, but are they as much of a threat as the certainty of the return of hurricanes each year to the Gulf Coast? That’s a question we have to ask ourselves and Congress has to ask itself.

AB: You also discuss the 1930 hurricane in the Dominican Republic, which helped Trujillo consolidate power and go on to rule with an authoritarian fist up through 1961.

SS: That’s the San Zenon hurricane, and it came right after the election of Trujillo. He claimed emergency powers, and under those emergency powers he provided help for the rebuilding of the capital city (which they had renamed Ciudad Trujillo). He also used them to lock up his political opponents.

You have to remember that since the hurricanes come every year, it’s not surprising that they often arrive just before or just after an election and sometimes can be used for political purposes.

Obama (left) and Christie clasp hands and smile at each other in front of a carnival game with teddy bear prizes hanging above them.

President Obama and Governor Cristie celebrate the success of the federal and state recovery effort seven months after Hurricane Sandy by enjoying the reopened boardwalk in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Photo by the Obama White House, May 28, 2013.

AB: You bring that up at the end of your book with Hurricane Sandy.

SS: We saw the scenes of Governor Cristie walking on the beaches of New Jersey with President Obama, and how much criticism he got from his party for doing that. But Governor Cristie needed federal help. He later talked about the spirit that had been created in New Jersey as a result of Sandy and what his government had done. So, in a very curious way, his discourse was very similar to Fidel’s in 1963. You have this emphasis on communal organization and cooperation.

Although our president was critical of Puerto Rico, arguing that its people need to talk care of themselves, what was really noticeable was that there was a tremendous amount of community cooperation and people stepping up often with very little government assistance.

I was recently in Puerto Rico and half of the traffic lights in San Juan, eight months after the hurricane, were still not functioning. You can’t imagine a city of that size in the United States allowed to go that long without stoplights on its main thoroughfares.

We now know that 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria due to a failure of local government and of  the federal government. Incompetence, corruption, and lack of adequate preparation given Puerto Rico’s weakened infrastructure and its present fiscal situation produced more fatalities than Katrina. The lesson has not been learned. It’s not the storms themselves that killed these people. It is what we did or did not do before and after that was responsible. Preparation, policy, and will is what is needed to confront “natural” disasters. The challenge is environmental and political.

Featured image: The María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Lorie Schaull, March 2018. 

Stuart Schwartz is George Burton Adams Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of more than eighty articles and six books, most recently Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (Princeton University Press, 2015). He is currently at work on a history of Portugal in the 17th century. Contact.

Adam Behrman holds an M.A. in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an M.A. in History from Boise State University. He worked as a meteorologist for a decade in Casper, Wyoming, Rockford, Illinois, and Boise, Idaho, and currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Contact