Hurricane Maria Survivor to Paint Climate Change Mural with Local Students

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Patricia Lewis couldn’t sleep. She was used to being surrounded by the lushness of Puerto Rico’s wooded landscape and the absence of trees was disconcerting. In its decimation, the storm had torn them up by their roots. It was as though the wind and rain had waxed the island’s landscape like a leg, she said.

The storm had destroyed much of the island’s infrastructure and her house no longer had running water. A 92 year-old woman who lived with Lewis pointed out where to dig and they survived with their makeshift well. Three weeks after the hurricane, she, her boyfriend – now fiancee – and her family fled the island.

Now, Lewis is in New York City and taking the lessons she learned from Maria to the Bronx. She is leading a workshop at Mott Haven’s International Community High School October 3rd, to educate teenagers about the impacts of climate change. Afterword, Lewis will solicit ideas and design a mural to be painted by students in the school’s backyard.

Lewis’ winding journey to New York is one of tragedy, but it’s also one of extraordinary will and compassion.  After growing up in Puerto Rico and making a name for herself in San Juan as a muralist, violinist and singer, Lewis earned a scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts. She later returned to the island, learned to play the guitar and began writing songs. Before the storm hit in September 2016, she enjoyed a steady stream of gigs which, like the island after the storm, dried up.

She was fortunate. Relatives in Philadelphia collected money and took Patricia and her family in after they fled to the United States. Some people she knew resorted to living out of cars. Meanwhile, Lewis travelled north to New York City whenever she could, crashing on friend’s couches while working to restart her career as an artist.

There, she met William Acevedo, the director of YucaArts, a Bronx nonprofit that organizes art education programs for local teenagers. When the Climate Museum, a newly-opened New York institution that is the first in the United States dedicated to climate change, approached Acevedo to run community programming in the South Bronx around a new exhibition, he went to Lewis.

This is only one of many community partnerships the museum is pursuing, but it is of particular significance. “The South Bronx is just such an important constituency for us because they’re some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers to climate change,” says Claudia Villar, the Research and Communication Coordinator at the Climate Museum.

A study designed by Columbia University and the NYC Department of Health rates the South Bronx as one of the neighborhoods in New York that is most vulnerable to extreme heat. By the 2050s, the number of days that record temperatures above 90 degrees will have doubled, according to projections The New York City Panel on Climate Change.

Statistics like that are easy to gloss over. “If you focus too much on the data then people are going to shut down and not care about the issue,” said Villar. “The most important thing in the South Bronx – and more broadly – is talking about climate change in a very human perspective.” This is Lewis’ role.

Lewis is designing a curriculum involving a video, games and dialogue to engage the kids. “I just want them to think about it: Hurricane Sandy, extreme heat, possible flooding of New York in the next 80 years and social injustice as a consequence,” said Lewis.

Despite her experience as an artist, Lewis was initially uncertain that she was the right person to lead the workshop. “I didn’t even realize I was a victim of climate change,” she said laughing. “They had to sit me down and be like, Patricia you are perfect for this job because you’ve been through it. I’d just never thought of it that way. But it’s true.” Now, she’s going to help kids in the South Bronx make the same connection. “The same awakening I had, I want New Yorkers to have too,” she said.

Academics agree there’s a significant benefit to programs like Lewis’. “There is an extremely important component of getting to the neighborhood level and educating about climate risk,” said David Bader, a program manager at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems.

“There is extreme power in terms of what the neighborhood can do to respond to climate risk, your local community group will know where the elderly are and tell where the emergency responders where to go first, they have a tremendous amount of knowledge to help,” he added.

For Lewis, the effort to raise awareness about climate change is personal. “I don’t want them to feel it as fast as I did,” said Lewis. “I don’t want them to experience what I experienced and what my country is experiencing: the realization that we’re too late. That sucks, and I see that happening in New York.”

The empty wall on which the mural Patricia Lewis is designing will be painted, overlooked by International Community High School. Credit: Lucas Manfield

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