Andi Mathis, the state and regional specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts, found a post-apocalyptic landscape when she arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricanes Maria and Irma decimated the region in 2017. There were heaps of scrap metal by the side of the road. Many buildings had their roofs blown off, leaving them open to the sky. Normally bustling public areas were eerily empty, and people seemed haggard and battle-worn. “It was heartbreaking, just heartbreaking,” she said.
Mathis had traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as Puerto Rico, to facilitate the National Endowment for the Arts’ relief efforts following the devastating storms. It was part of the Arts Endowment’s long history of responding to natural and man-made disasters, and using the arts to promote healing following community trauma. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, for example, the National Endowment for the Arts led design charrettes to create a memorial honoring the 168 men, women, and children who died in the attack. Following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in 2005, the Arts Endowment invested $700,000 in support for the Gulf Coast’s emotional and physical recovery. And in 2017, the agency awarded emergency funding to the state arts agencies in Florida and Texas to re-grant to artists and organizations affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The NEA also sits on the steering committees of coalitions that help arts agencies both prepare for and respond to emergencies, including the National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response (NCAPER) and the Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF).
After Hurricane Maria, the National Endowment for the Arts carried out a multipronged relief effort, awarding emergency funding for re-granting to the affected state arts agencies—the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP) and the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts— and as a member agency in the federal Natural and Cultural Resources Recovery Support Function (NCRRSF), working in coordination with other federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of the Interior to help address recovery for the arts and cultural sector. Mathis, as the NEA’s representative to the NCRRSF, has deployed multiple times to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, while NEA Historic Preservation Officer Brian Lusher has deployed four times to Puerto Rico to date. Through these multiple approaches, the Arts Endowment has been able to provide financial support, technical and policy assistance, and leadership when asked and needed.
While the arts have helped the large-scale physical, economic, and cultural healing, they have also helped individuals in both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands continue to process their collective trauma. “The arts are so important to both of those cultures,” said Mathis. “I think it helped them retain a sense of normalcy when they were able to participate in the arts—to see beauty and experience art and make art.”