Imaging Disaster: Puerto Rico through the Eye of Hurricane María

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During Hurricane María, individuals throughout the Caribbean uploaded video and photographs to social media, but as winds downed communication towers and electric lines, sharing stopped. Still, satellites orbiting high above Earth transmitted views of the massive hurricane. In the following weeks, the media bombarded viewers with scenes of devastated landscapes, people wading through waist-deep water, infrastructure shredded beyond recognition, apocalyptic desolation, and desperation. Media portrayals focused on a “powerless” people, literally without electrical power, further reduced into social, economic, and political powerlessness. This article combines ethnographic elicitation with cultural analysis to understand how images of trauma and suffering affect diverse audiences. Do these images compel viewers to fight for justice or do they desensitize them? Do they lead people toward feelings of pessimism, resignation, and cynicism? I explore how people's backgrounds and relationships to specific places inform the ways they are even able to look at, grapple with, and work through traumatic images. I demonstrate how long-term prejudice is imbedded into the media's imagery and representations of Hurricane María to show how associated governmental neglect exacerbates the trauma of disaster. Lastly, I engage with the place of responsibility and sorrow as I raise the question of how the specter of future natural disasters haunts the current state of devastation.

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Transforming Anthropology