Vieques is a tiny island about 8 miles away from the larger island of Puerto Rico. Its uniquely isolated geography makes it an ideal retreat for tourists, but also renders it particularly vulnerable to a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria. While the main island of Puerto Rico is beginning to see some relief – not without many setbacks – Vieques likely won’t see power restored until next year.
This conundrum is compounded by a Puerto Rico economy that played fast and loose with investment dollars until the recession of 2008. While the U.S. mainland recovered over time, Puerto Rico never did. As a territory and not a state, the island couldn’t restructure its debt, instead continuing to pay crippling interest and ultimately defaulting on a key loan payment earlier this year. The back-to-back punches of Irma and Maria couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Vieques has an additional burden not of its own making. The U.S. Navy used the island as a bombing range for decades, promising a comprehensive cleanup once the bombing stopped but ultimately leaving the task at the mercy of budgetary cuts and general indifference toward an increasingly forgotten island. As a result, islanders who don’t flee to the mainland face the possibility of contamination from toxins exposed by the storms.
Mary and I have visited the island twice and loved the laid-back tropical vibe there: fresh mangoes ripe for the picking and wild horses trotting down the streets. The high incidence of cancer directly correlated to unexploded ordnance behind miles of barbed wire kept us from seriously considering it as a place we might want to spend our retirement years.
Native islanders don’t have the luxury of this sort of planning. Many are packing up and leaving – for good. They don’t deserve this.