Just Like in the Russian Anecdote of Production (the spread of information in Puerto Rico)

Puerto Rico, unknown part of San Juan – Long line for gasoline: by car up to 12 hours by foot 2-3 hours- 26.09.2017

The anecdote, which Zsiga’s history teacher must be credited for, goes like this:

One year, the Russian harvest produced a total of 50 tons of wheat. Ivan Ivanevich, the local Kolkhoz leader, knew that the party would not be happy that they had not reached the projected plan of 100 tons. As a result, he writes on the record/paperwork that 65 tons were produced. The train officer who receives the record, sees that it is actually 65 instead of 100 tons, doesn’t want to be responsible, and as a result writes on the record 80 tons. By the time the load changes trains, the new record already shows 110 tons and by the time it arrives to Moscow, the officer who takes the wheat down from the train writes 150 tons. When the party leaders in Moscow receive the report they announce that the quota was reached at 150 %!

The spread of information went a little something like this in Puerto Rico post-hurricane Maria, especially with regards to the government, as the anecdote also points out. The radio was the main source of information for all in the aftermath of the hurricane, since there was no electricity or phone service. The government and other associated speakers kept emphasizing that things would be stabilized in just a few days, but after some good waiting we realized that this broadcasted information was not reliable. For example, directly after the hurricane and still for a few weeks after, the lines to get gasoline were unbearable. We waited in a line for 5 hours and were still not able to get any, because the station closed before we could reach the pump. This made people seriously panic, because without a car in Puerto Rico you are pretty much nothing. The radio announced that everything would be stable by Monday the 25th of September (the hurricane had occurred Wednesday, September 20th) and that everyone should just sit tight until then and not occupy the streets waiting for gasoline. We believed them and waited at home. Of course on Monday we all went out in desperate search of gasoline. The lines were even longer and there were less gasoline stations open than before! This pattern continued on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and the gasoline situation actually never regulated before we left on the 29th!

Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras- Gasoline line in the rain- 27.09.2017

Apart from the “encouraging” and unrealistic words, the radio did try to provide a method for people to call in that could (that is those who had phone service), to announce that they were safe, so that at least family members on other parts of the island might hear this news and be less worried (everyone was stuck in their city, because trees were blocking many roads, and all the damage had not been assessed yet).

In Zsiga’s view the radio could have had a much greater role in the spread of information compared to how it was used in practice. Especially since radio signal was the only source of information that could reach the whole island and also the only source that was accessible for everyone, because all the cars are equipped with radios. Ideally only creditable REAL information should have been spread on the radio. In contrast radio presenters were talking about speculations and their own opinions…

Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras- Line for cash: Right after the hurricane using bank card for payments wasn’t possible. As a result one day after the hurricane there was already a giant demand for working ATMs. This line on the picture took about an hour. However, a couple of days later the line reached 400m in length and a 4-5 hours wait – 21.09.2017

The other difficulty was that partly because of the Puerto Rican/Latin culture, and partly because of the situation we were not able to receive reliable information even from our neighbours. Everyone would say they heard this and that from a friend, but you couldn’t be sure if it was true. At the same time, it was the only flow of information that you could access, so the question was to believe it or not? In question of survival, this was very difficult. For example, Zsiga and I did not know if we were rather a burden to our family there, than anything else. More people equalled the need for more water, more gasoline, and more food which was not readily available in the supermarkets. That’s why Zsiga and I felt like we couldn’t rely on any outside information about the coming of water, gasoline, or help. The best was to be really dependent on ourselves, and go out and wait in the lines for gasoline for example. Many people thought the same.

In terms of personal communication, we were very lucky. Our phone provider worked throughout the entire hurricane and after but only in our neighbourhood. Of course when we drove around, we would lose service. This was a better situation, however, than what happened in my cousin’s neighbourhood, where pretty much nobody had any service whatsoever. We did try to access the internet and news on our phone, but the issue was that the internet was quite slow and any outside sources which had published articles on Puerto Rico didn’t provide handy information like where we could find a water oasis (a point of water access) or when water would be sold in the supermarkets again, or when gasoline would be distributed properly.

Lastly, it was difficult to decide what to tell family and friends abroad about how bad the situation was on the island. My mother had called us, in a rather hysterical state, because what she saw on the American news channel ,CNN, was only crisis and destruction. It seemed that outside sources focused rather on large events, such as the deterioration of dams post-hurricane Maria and the need for people to evacuate from those towns who were in danger of immediate flooding by those dams. Additionally, they also filmed in Condado (an area which is on the beach front), which of course suffered massive flooding, and depicted huge devastation to those watching on the outside. This distribution of information was also unreliable, because it failed to portray the everyday ways in which people were managing to cope with the crisis (at least in our region). For example, it seemed to us that everyone was coping on a day to day basis. You might run out of water, but then it was your mission on that day to find water by whatever means, and usually (based on the people who we encountered) you could eventually find water (mostly through contacts, and not through supermarkets).

Puerto Rico, unknown part of San Juan- Damaged but functioning petrol station: There were three lines. One for people with canister to buy gasoline, another for diesel also for canisters and a third one for cars for gasoline. (In Puerto Rico all cars are running with gasoline. Diesel only used for generators)- 27.09.2017

What we learned on the ground, is that in a crisis the flow of information seems to be blocked both on an internal level but also external level. Those on the inside, such as the government, have their own interests at hand, understandably with the aims of avoiding escalation and panic. Therefore, the release of information by radio for example is closely followed and selectively released. As a result of blocked road access, no electricity, or phone service, it is hard for information/news to reach people (that is from person to person), therefore what one hears from neighbours one can only take at face value and hope for the best. Those on the outside, tend to depict information selectively. In the case of the CNN reporter, it is unlikely that he/she travelled across the entire island to record the differences between the damages in the countryside and the beach front. This can of course be misgiving for those outside of the island, trying to inform themselves on the truth of the situation.


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