America helps Puerto Ricans with hurricane relief efforts

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

On Aug. 19, 1899, the Associated Press Day Report announced President William McKinley, among others, had contributed to a storm relief fund for Puerto Rico.

Hurricane San Ciriaco hit Puerto Rico Aug. 8, 1899, as the islanders were celebrating the Feast of San Ciriaco. Rain and winds with speeds of 100 mph continued for 28 days straight. Hurricane San Ciriaco, a Category 4 storm, remains the longest-lasting Atlantic hurricane in recorded history.

Approximately 3,400 people in Puerto Rico died in the floods, and thousands of survivors struggled to find shelter and food. Mortality rates would remain high for a year after the storm. Farmlands were destroyed, including coffee and sugar plantations, resulting in a lasting and devastating effect on both the social and economic situation for years to come.

The hurricane came at a perilous time for Puerto Rico, with the United States having recently taken possession of the island. When the storm hit, Puerto Rico was still under military occupation. In addition, the lead-up to the Spanish-American War was a turbulent time that had already created an unstable situation for residents of the island. The political and financial situation of Puerto Rico made it difficult for disaster recovery.

On Sept. 6, 1899, the Headquarters Department of Puerto Rico issued General Order No. 138: “The collection of taxes due by land holder to the insular treasury and municipalities have been suspended.” This remission of taxes issued by the military governor provided some relief. Congress did not approve any relief funds; however, charity relief from the United States was immense. The Los Angeles Times reported that the War Department began to collect funds to help the survivors of the ongoing storm. Among the contributions to the relief fund were President McKinley, $250; and Vice President Hobart, $250. The Merchants’ Association of New York collected $10,000 for Puerto Rico.

On Sept. 6, 1899, John Van R. Hoff, President of the Board of Charities of Puerto Rico described the relief efforts: “Some planting is being done, but not so much as desirable, and it is not likely in any event that the issue of food can be wholly stopped before the end of this year.” Despite the tremendous outpouring of support from the United States, islanders struggled with destitution.

Hurricane San Ciriaco dissipated on Sept. 12, 1899. Four months letter, the storm remained present in the debate in Congress to determine whether Puerto Rico would be granted independence.

Michelle Alleman is library director at the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles.