Video preview credits: Footage by Merika Andrade, Emily Case, Marcella Mercer, Gabriella Parsons, Elsie Stormberg and Bill Wendl | Drone footage by Merika Andrade, Ben Kreimer and Gabriella Parsons | Video edit by Gabriella Parsons

Left in the Dark: Puerto Rico's Fight for a Just Recovery

After nearly one year in darkness since Hurricane Maria and more than $100 billion in storm damages, electricity has still not returned to thousands of people across Puerto Rico, where an estimated 5,000 people died from hurricane-related causes.

And yet, the real disaster was man-made in the form of a $73 billion debt, which had already destroyed Puerto Rico’s infrastructure long before Maria, and sparked journalists to investigate the root cause of this debt. Today, after two catastrophic hurricanes, the island faces even higher stakes. 

Venture capitalists are swarming Puerto Rico. As the Caribbean confronts hurricane season yet again, experts have cautioned of outsiders profiting off the island’s severely damaged and vulnerable infrastructure. Public education and other services are quickly becoming privatized, with more than 200 public schools closing in the past six months.

It seemed the world had finally heard Puerto Rico’s cry for help, when a Harvard study estimated the death count from Hurricane Maria is actually more than 70x the official government toll . However, the death of an estimated 4,645 Puerto Ricans, has still not struck a response from much of U.S. congress.

This reality comes to no surprise to most Puerto Ricans.

“The hurricane just rushed us ahead of a crisis we’ve been living since 2006.” - Jorge Diaz, Founder and Artistic Director, Agitarte

After the proven negligence of the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments to respond to the humanitarian crisis on the island, grassroots groups quickly organized. A sustainable and just recovery has been the emphasis of these groups, demanding recovery efforts to be led by and for Puerto Ricans.

While people in Puerto Rico work to rebuild and empower their communities, they also face significant challenges and a myriad of austerity measures, which have led to state violence at many protests against these injustices. For all these reasons and more, an estimated 200,000 people have left the island since Maria.

Named to reflect the ongoing power outage in Puerto Rico and the negligent disaster response from the U.S., this project documents life in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and shows the dignity held by people in the face of injustice. Left in the Dark, produced three months after Maria by University of Nebraska-Lincoln photojournalism students, premieres Friday, August 3, 2018 in Lincoln. 


 Overlooking the valley of Caguas, a municipality known as, "the heart of Puerto Rico," at sunrise. Drone photography by Gabriella Parsons, December 2017.

Overlooking the valley of Caguas, a municipality known as, "the heart of Puerto Rico," at sunrise. Drone photography by Gabriella Parsons, December 2017.

Solidarity at the Heart of Puerto Rico: Decolonization through Mutual-aid in Maria’s Aftermath: 

In the wake of Hurricane Maria –– the shock, the disaster, the darkness –– there is dignity. Conversations about decolonization and sovereignty for Puerto Rico had already been happening long before the storms. Knowing the island was already at a vulnerable position in its colonial relationship to the United States, Puerto Ricans responded to the catastrophe with a call for change.

Communities organized to build solidarity with one another and protect themselves from the risks of disaster capitalism. In the heart of Puerto Rico –– the valley of Caguas –– one group transformed an abandoned building into a community center, which they named El Centro de Apoyo Mutuo, The Center for Mutual Aid.

Their mission was simple: to feed their community and heal the trauma and shock that the hurricanes left. But what resulted was more complex. Their efforts gradually sparked a movement across the island, with many other mutual aid centers emulating it. These centers provide a platform for Puerto Ricans to reclaim their autonomy, to redefine their own process of recovery, not just from the hurricanes, but from the long history of colonization. 

Their collective efforts have emphasized the need to liberate Puerto Rico once and for all.

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Food (comida)

Modeled after revolutionary movements like those of The Young Lords and The Black Panthers’ free food program, The Center for Mutual Aid serves breakfast and lunch to the community of Caguas on weekdays. This service does not cost money, and can instead be exchanged for people's volunteer time and resources.

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Health (salud)

Ear acupuncture is offered at the center every week, and has helped community members relieve depression and anxiety that stemmed from the hurricane and its aftermath. This service is provided by certified acupuncturists who volunteer at the center.

 A couple looks out on the coastline in La Perla, where a mutual aid center provides dinner for the community. Volunteers at the center are part of an activist group in Puerto Rico called  Jornada: Se acabaron las Promesas . The sign to the right translates as "Fiscal Control Board: made in Wall Street. Only the people save the people." 

A couple looks out on the coastline in La Perla, where a mutual aid center provides dinner for the community. Volunteers at the center are part of an activist group in Puerto Rico called Jornada: Se acabaron las Promesas. The sign to the right translates as "Fiscal Control Board: made in Wall Street. Only the people save the people." 

 The view from el Centro de Apoyo Mutuo in La Perla, a barrio of San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

The view from el Centro de Apoyo Mutuo in La Perla, a barrio of San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

* This story is part of a student-led project through the Global Eyewitness photojournalism program at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The full project can be viewed here.