In Wake of Maria, Media Neglects U.S. Territories

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been one of the worst in recent memory — it brings back troubling memories of my family’s experiences in 2004. Hurricane Ivan struck Alabama on Sept. 16 as a category 3 storm and cost the United States $18.82 billion in damages. The media closely followed the story once the U.S. was at risk. However, my family was more concerned about Ivan’s damage to the Cayman Islands half a week prior; my grandmother’s family still lived on Grand Cayman, the largest of the Islands, and the American media’s apparent disinterest complicated our attempts to find out what had happened.

Ivan struck the island as a category 5 storm, and it lingered for two days. Grand Cayman had not been hit by a major hurricane for some time, meaning many structures and building codes were untested. And while everyone we knew sheltered safely, the Cayman Islands suffered $3.4 billion in damages — 183 percent of their GDP. It took seven years for the tourism industry to fully recover.

Despite Grand Cayman being functionally razed, the media mostly covered Ivan’s slow dissipation that brought little more than rain to most of the U.S. My family had to actively seek out local news on the island’s condition to supplement what our relatives told us, but those news agencies were recovering themselves.

Overlooking Caribbean islands is a trend in American media, and coverage of the recent hurricanes in the U.S. Virgin Islands are no exception. St. Thomas, the territory’s largest island, had its only hospital incapacitated after Hurricane Irma, only for Hurricane Maria to further damage the island’s infrastructure just days later. The territory’s governor, Kenneth Mapp, said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR)’s Jeremy Hobson that restoring power could take months. Restoring the island’s tourism industry, a key source of revenue, will likely take even longer. Despite this damage, stories from the U.S. Virgin Islands’ have taken a backseat to less pressing events.

Even Puerto Rico, although receiving some attention immediately after Hurricane Maria, has been marginalized by major cable news networks. Initial damage reports made headlines, especially those that found the island would be without power for up to six months, but the news cycle has quickly moved on; Maria’s aftermath and threats to the Guajataca Dam that forced the evacuation of 70,000 people netted the island little more than token coverage, despite the 3.4 million Americans living there. The narrative quickly shifted away from Caribbean territories and towards U.S. states – CNN’s U.S. page featured “U.S. East Coast warned to monitor storm,” four headlines above, “Puerto Rico dam: Evacuations begin along river,” despite the National Hurricane Center’s cone of uncertainty showing little risks for the continental U.S.

The key differences between the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Cayman Islands is that the former two are U.S. territories, while the latter is British. When the U.S. media neglects to cover territories as it would cover states, it implies a devaluation of territorial experiences. Worse, when the U.S. media puts the comparably lesser disruptions (or, in Maria’s case, its mere potential risk) for states before the total destruction wrought upon territories, the lives of Americans residing there appear less valuable. Though we might like to think distinctions between states and territories are just legal relics of settler colonialism, the media’s handling of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria show it extends past just law. If we ever want to live in a truly post-colonial world, media coverage must change to reflect the concerns of all Americans.

Isaiah Sirois is a College sophomore from Nashua, N.H.

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