In 2017, Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, causing unprecedented devastation to the island and its people. Puerto Ricans lost access to power, food, drinkable water, and health services in a mere 48 hours of treacherous wind and rainfall.
Natural disasters leave physical and emotional trauma in their wake. Higher rates of anxiety, depression and PTSD were found in survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Japan saw higher prevalence of heart disease and substance use in survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. So how did Maria’s wrath affect the health of Puerto Ricans?
Josiemer Mattei and colleagues compared the prevalence of various chronic diseases among Puerto Ricans before and after the hurricane. The figure above shows prevalence for multiple diseases in 2015 and 2019. Almost every condition became more common two years after the storm. Food inaccessibility may have exacerbated conditions associated with poor nutrition, such as hypertension, high cholesterol and obesity. Some conditions that require consistent care, such as diabetes and heart disease, stayed roughly the same. The hurricane can likely not be blamed for growing disease prevalence, but it may have amplified existing unhealthy population trends.
Hurricane Maria devastated the already inadequate healthcare and power infrastructures in Puerto Rico. After purchasing the land from Spain in 1898, the United States has continuously underfunded and neglected the territory it colonized. The storm highlighted the systemic and racial inequities the island faces. Despite calls for action, the lack of support persists as this island of American citizens has still received only 29% of allocated federal funds four years after the storm.
The need to address systemic inequities is imperative in disaster-prone areas. With natural disasters becoming more frequent and deadly, implementing health promotion programs and interventions could give people tools to find calm after the storm.
Databyte via Mattei J, Tamez M, O’Neill J, et al. Chronic Diseases and Associated Risk Factors Among Adults in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria. JAMA Network Open, 2022.