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Puerto Rico se levanta

Rallying under the motto “rises,” scientists in the pharmaceutical industry and academia reflect on the island’s resiliency and challenges one year after Hurricane Maria

September 17, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 37
A satellite map showing Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens | As Hurricane Maria's eye passed over Puerto Rico's midsection, no part of the island could escape its wrath. | As Hurricane Maria's eye passed over Puerto Rico's midsection, no part of the island could escape its wrath.

When Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico last year, no one was prepared for its destruction. Though smack in the middle of Hurricane Alley, the island has, historically, been lucky: Hurricanes have nearly always veered off at the last minute, as Irma had done just two weeks earlier.

But on Sept. 20, 2017, Maria struck with a brutality that left a lasting, visible imprint. It’s in the sea of blue Federal Emergency Management Agency tarps that are visible as a plane descends into San Juan, the pockets of the island that only recently regained power, the homes that have yet to be rebuilt, and the people who are still grappling with profound loss even while they are fiercely proud of how their community came together in the period after the storm.

As has been well documented, the problems went far beyond the flooding, downed trees, and damaged homes expected from a Category 4 storm. The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico was exacerbated by an island-wide power and communications outage, alongside what many feel was the U.S. government’s slow and insufficient response to the storm. Many went for months without clean water or electricity, aftereffects implicated in the estimated 3,000 people who died as a result of Maria.

In addition to lives, the situation also imperiled Puerto Rico’s already-shaky economy, the stability of its academic institutions, and the environmental health of the island. C&EN explores the recovery efforts for each of those segments: how the pharmaceutical industry, a critical component of the Puerto Rican economy and an important cog in the global pharmaceutical supply chain, is learning from its experiences during and after Maria; how chemistry professors and students at universities came together to revive research; and how scientists are tracking the safety of the island’s water and air.


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