In September 2017, a terrible natural disaster devastated Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria, a Category 4, was the strongest hurricane to make landfall there since 1928. As the death toll rose, Governor Ricardo Rossello announced that it was “without a doubt the biggest catastrophe in modern history for Puerto Rico.” Celebrities who had links to the island immediately turned to the internet to see what help could be found. Among them was Jennifer Lopez.
Puerto Rico hadn’t seen a disaster on the level of Hurricane Maria for many decades. Multiple relief teams had to come in and assist with rescue efforts. But, even with this, many people died. Indeed, a few weeks after the incident, officials were giving the death toll as 43. Some of these people had succumbed to infections contracted from the water in the aftermath of the storm.
Others died while trying to help clean up the mess that Maria had left in its wake. Yet more perished while driving in treacherous conditions on the ruined roads. Unfortunately, officials reported, there was a chance that worse was still to come. Hospitals were devastated, leaving millions of people without access to healthcare. In addition, many others were deprived of food, water or other necessities.
President Trump declared the area a disaster zone and pledged his support. To this end, FEMA response teams arrived on the island to offer help. “You hear about the destruction, but honestly, until we get out here and see it firsthand, it’s hard to frame it all up,” said Mike Pruitt from FEMA’s Incident Support Command, speaking to USA Today. “It’s absolutely devastating to see what they’ve lost.”
Relief efforts in Puerto Rico were hindered slightly by the fact that just weeks earlier, similar storms had hit the USA. Hurricane Harvey had killed over 75 people in Texas, most of them dying in the fast-rising waters. Hurricane Irma, which devastated Florida, had an almost identical death toll. It was a terrible, terrible hurricane season.
Many people linked the level of devastation to the ongoing problem of climate change. “The short version is, climate change makes these very bad storms worse,” meteorologist Sean Sublette of Climate Central told CNN on September 19. “In the case of a really bad storm, climate change can make it totally disastrous or catastrophic.”
It was clear that Puerto Rico needed help, and fast. Furthermore, celebrities began speaking up about it on social media – a common rallying point after a disaster with a high death toll. Jennifer Lopez, perhaps the best-known celebrity in the world with Puerto Rican heritage, was one of the loudest voices in the days after the storm.
Both of Jennifer’s parents, Guadalupe Rodríguez and David Lopez, are Puerto Rican. They moved to New York before she was born and raised their family there. Jennifer – often nicknamed “J-Lo” by the media – gradually rose to become one of the most famous Latina women on the planet. In 2012, Forbes dubbed her the most powerful celebrity in the world.
But unfortunately, all the fame and fortune she had accrued throughout her career was nothing in the face of a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria. On September 22 she made a video for her Instagram and delivered a very important message to her 69 million followers. “Please help us spread the word to help our fellow sisters and brothers in need,” Lopez captioned it.
In the video, delivered from a dressing room in Las Vegas, she explained that she needed to ask for help from whoever might be watching. “What’s on my mind is what’s going on in Puerto Rico. The devastation is beyond belief. Me and my cousin still haven’t been able to hear from our families over there,” she said. The worry in her voice was evident.
Lopez implored her followers to donate to United For Puerto Rico, a campaign set up by Beatriz Rosselló, the island’s First Lady. Both money and material items such as building goods could be donated via the organization. “Today Puerto Rico needs our help. Together we can help rebuild our island and the Caribbean,” Lopez said.
“I love you all and our prayers are with you,” she added in Spanish, concluding the video. Comments immediately started popping up beside it, thanking the singer and saying they would be donating. And J-Lo of course donated a large sum of money herself. She gave a million dollars and then began organizing a benefit concert.
On October 14, the concert – “One Voice: Somos Live! A Concert for Disaster Relief” – went ahead. During the event, Lopez sang a number of her greatest hits and then made a speech thanking the attendees. “Tonight, we are all here as one voice, to declare loudly and clearly in English and Spanish to every man, woman and child in Puerto Rico and beyond that you are not forgotten, you are not alone,” she said.
Moreover, Lopez isn’t the only celebrity who’s been frantically championing relief efforts. Her fellow Puerto Rican and One Voice participant Ricky Martin has been fundraising ever since the hurricane struck. “I don’t sleep, I’m in creative mode trying to see how we can bring love and hope to my people in Puerto Rico,” he told Us Weekly at a benefit event on October 10.
Meanwhile, other Latin celebrities have been dealing with the political side of things, often with no small amount of anger. Such was the response to the disaster from President Trump that on October 2, 2017, the charity Oxfam released a statement. “While the US government is engaged in relief efforts, it has failed to address the most urgent needs,” it read in part. “We are outraged at the slow and inadequate response the US government has mounted.”
President Trump’s disparaging tweets about the disaster – which included an attack on San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and a comment that the victims “want everything to be done for them,” drew ire from many. One was Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Broadway musical Hamilton, who is also of Puerto Rican heritage. “You’re going straight to hell, @realDonaldTrump,” he tweeted.
Following on from that, Miranda released a benefit track for Puerto Rico, titled “Almost Like Praying.” Jennifer Lopez was one of the many Puerto Rican stars who contributed to it. Other artists included Gina Rodriguez, Luis Fonsi, Rita Moreno and Lopez’s ex-husband Marc Anthony. He had stood by her side throughout all her fundraising efforts and helped organize her concert.
Thankfully, there was a happy ending to Lopez’s worrying story about her family members. On September 27, about a week after her initial Instagram post, she made another one. “After a long 6 days we found the last of the family! Now the rebuilding begins!!” she wrote, beneath a video of her aunt and uncle alive and well in Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, though there are many happy stories like J-Lo’s of people being reunited with their family, Puerto Rico is not out of the woods yet. Some 85 percent of homes in the region currently lack electrical power, and more than a quarter have no clean drinking water. In desperation, some people have even turned to drinking contaminated water.
Many media outlets have called the ongoing situation “a humanitarian crisis” and have speculated that the death toll may yet rise, especially among the ill and the elderly. But there are some sparks of hope on the horizon: in the end, Lopez’s benefit concert raised in excess of $30 million. She tagged the news on Instagram with “#lovewins.”