On the morning of Sunday, October 7, 2018, I turned on the television in a Miami hotel room and the NBC news scroll read: “Earthquake in Haiti, 11 dead.”* The too-familiar words took my breath away. Before the media footage could load, my own memory recalled the devastating aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. I said a prayer for those latest earthquake victims and I empathized with those now devastated by unexpected loss. The earth may have quaked on the northwest end of Hispaniola in Port-de-Paix, but the tremors vibrated the raw nerve of our human vulnerability.
Fast forward some twelve hours, to the relief of returning home to Jamaica from Miami, weary from a day of travel and several days of attending an academic conference. Imagine the heart-swell of good night kisses and the sweet hugs that yawn out “I missed you.” Imagine the mundane act of fluffing a couch cushion then hearing the most unexpected terrestrial groan. Imagine hesitantly returning that pillow to the couch, dismissing the disturbance of doubt, taking a step toward the kitchen to get a glass of water, then feeling the most unexpected rumbling of earth rising from somewhere deep beneath the cool living room tile. In that fight-or flight moment of WTF-awareness, I locked eyes with my husband and screamed out for our daughters as he and and I each took wide, balance-seeking steps towards the room’s sturdy door frames. As I screamed, I wanted to choke it back. I was terrified that my fear would wake the children and, more frighteningly, I was fearful that I needed to wake them up in order to save them from disastrous harm.
Thankfully, in the seconds that it took to move 3 or 4 paces, the shaking had stopped. The house had not fallen and our girls had not been disturbed. The structure remained as sound as their sleep, even though the next several minutes saw me white-knuckling the threshold, grateful that the only shaking that remained was that of my knees.
I guess it’s true: We tend only to think of our vulnerability to nature when the worst threatens us or when the worst has come and destroyed. We find comfort in believing that vulnerability is usually seasonal. But beyond knowing where fault lines are, earthquakes are much less predictable and have no “season” to speak of. Standing in my living room Sunday night, some 60 kilometers away from the epicenter near Hope Bay in Portland, I fought back that morning’s memories of the more than 200,000 Haitian souls who perished when the earth slipped and vulnerable, unsuspecting bodies bore the brunt of a fault some eight years ago.
In a matter of grumbling seconds, in a single sweep of high velocity winds, in a powerful surge of high tide, we become vulnerable and life as we know it can be lost. Just ask anyone still picking up the pieces post-Hurricane Maria. My fellow Terrapin and fellow Caribbean bad gyal-returnee, Schuyler Esprit, was featured in the May/ June 2018 issue of Caribbean Beat magazine. In the article, writer Lisa Allen-Agostini summarized the impact that the hurricane had on Esprit’s Create Caribbean Research Institute in Dominica: “September 2017 brought an immense setback, as Hurricane Maria struck Dominica, damaging or destroying ninety-five percent of the island’s buildings, including the Create Caribbean office […] and destroyed equipment Esprit had paid for out of her own pocket.” After a disaster we are duly grateful when human lives have been spared; but our humanity is not only in our breath, it is also in what we create. It’s amazing to think that many lifetimes of work and investment can be obliterated in a single disastrous moment.
I have heard people complain with disappointment because they have never felt an earthquake. They complain as if they missed an opportunity to experience something joyful or exciting. These folks must be thrill-seekers, I suppose. They must think that being out of control is fun. I have heard people exclaim with delight that they would love to be in a tornado or a hurricane. They speak gleefully of stocking non-perishables and batteries. They speak boastfully of living far enough inland to be safe from the surge, of living in earthquake-proof homes, and of having candles and generators to protect them from power outages. They speak of preparedness as if it’s a new tech-gadget that they are eager to put to use. But if you have any empathy at all for those who live with the memory and the threatening possibilities that natural disasters bring, you would curb your enthusiasm. Nature does not care about first-world preparations or third-world infrastructure limitations: just ask those impacted by Hurricanes Sandy in 2012 or Katrina in 2005 or the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011. And with Hurricane Michael having made record-breaking landfall in the Florida Panhandle as I type these words, it is not yet clear what level of devastation will be tallied when the winds stop and the water damage dries up.**
In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria’s aftermath is still a clear and present reality because even though electric power has finally been restored, the psychological trauma remains and is even compounded when history is considered. (For more, read this article by Lauren Lluveras where she takes stock of the post-Maria Puerto Rico. And read this article discussing the “modern day colonial relationship that the United States has with Puerto Rico.”)
This week celebrates a particularly violent history. A few days ago on Monday, October 8th some folks honored the failed navigation of the great perpetrator of New World genocide, Christopher Columbus; while others honored the indigenous souls who lost their lives to colonization. When I think of this Caribbean space, its vulnerabilities, its traumas, and its beauties, I am reminded of the words to “La Borinqueña” written by Manuel Fernández Juncos more than a hundred years ago in 1901. “La Borinqueña” is named for the indigenous Taino people who lived on what was then called Borikén but is now present-day Puerto Rico. This territorial anthem of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico serves as a critical reminder of the entire region’s complicated history (see lyrics below). How so? Well, consider this: How vulnerable is our Caribbean identity to nature? Who will record our stories of trauma and how will they be recorded for posterity given the reality of our vulnerabilities? Who will tell our stories of peril and who will read/listen to them? I listen to this anthem*** and I think we are more than the “flowery gardens” that Juncos memorializes in song. I read the lyrics and know that we are no longer defined by Columbus’ perception of us.
Empathy is why we read. Empathy is why we watch movies. Empathy is why we listen to music. And empathy is why we plug-in to social media. We want to feel connected to the world around us and the internet allows us to connect, empathetically at times, to people a world away. Through that connection, the internet allows us a digital space to be vulnerable to emotional devastation.
Connected as we are, we often worry more about internet vulnerability and how malware and computer viruses can erase our identities than how forces of wind, water, or fire can. We don’t think of how the earth seems to quake when our smart phones go missing or fall in a toilet. We don’t think of how the wind and water of erasure seems to rush in when our tablets won’t power on. We don’t think of the fire that devours us when our laptops give us terrifying blue screens. Archives like this blog, archives like our Instagram and Facebook accounts, archives like Spotify and Apple Music, and all the life experiences we’ve collectively uploaded to various servers and clouds over the years, are vulnerable, in a way. In fact, we all are. Because, at the end of the day, whether through a storm, a quake, a song, or a profile page, we all just want to protect what we’ve created long into posterity. Am I right?
*The death toll reached 12 persons for the Saturday, October 6th, 2018 earthquake in Haiti.
**At the time that this post was written on October 11, 2018, six lives were lost as a result of Hurricane Michael and more than 300,000 residents lost electric power.
***”La Borinquena” is embedded within Big Pun’s hip hop song “100 %” (2000). Tony Sunshine sings the chorus and the Puerto Rican anthem beginning at minute mark 2:50.