America's forgotten crisis | The World Weekly
Words struggle to encapsulate the deadly chaos which Hurricane Maria brought to the US territory of Puerto Rico when its central eye made landfall on September 20, 2017. For over 30 hours, Maria lashed the island with Category 4 wind speeds up to 249 kilometres per hour and rainfall exceeding 76 centimetres in some areas.
The immediate impacts were stark. Roads were impassable across the island, 85% of mobile phone masts were left inoperable, and almost the entirety of the island’s 3.4 million population lost power. Many communities were left struggling to obtain food and clean water.
Even after the storm passed it still posed a severe risk to life, with poor sanitation and restricted access to the emergency services continuing for weeks. The official death toll currently stands at 64. However, the New York Times found that 1,052 more people died than normal in a 42-day period after the storm. Responding to these claims, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló has committed to recertify deaths registered after Maria.
Stories from the ground consolidate this spike in mortality after the storm. “Every single system failed my family in the most traumatising way you can imagine,” said one anonymous Puerto Rican woman. After falling ill with an infection, her mother was released whilst still “in pain” from an overcrowded hospital, and then died suddenly the next day – downed mobile phone masts slowed their call to the emergency services. The Forensic Science Department did not perform an autopsy as it was “full” with bodies. Her mother’s death certificate read: “Died of Natural Causes.”
Essential services have struggled to manage spiralling health concerns after Maria. Mental health cases shot up, with doctors reporting exceptionally high rates of hospitalisation for suicidal or traumatic thoughts. “How can I tell someone to keep calm when they don’t have a place to sleep,” wondered one worker at a suicide prevention centre in the capital San Juan.
Indeed, survival is increasingly difficult for Puerto Rico’s poorest residents. The island’s poverty rate was 43% before the storm and many existed just above it. Maria destroyed livelihoods and forced people to incur exceptional expenses on fuel and water to survive. One early study from H. Calero Consulting Group in Puerto Rico predicted that people previously living 150 to 125% over the poverty line could be pushed into poverty. By the end of 2018, poverty rates could near 60%.
Federal authorities have consistently defended their response to Maria. Described by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the “largest federal response to a disaster” in American history, government agencies claim to – in cooperation with private contractors – have distributed 48 million meals and 56 million litres of water to the population. To date, most amenities have been restored to relative normality, with water access at 97% - a safety advisory to boil it remains in place.
Yet they faced significant criticism for being slow in coming to Puerto Rico’s aid. President Donald Trump’s public statements did little to assuage concerns. “They [Puerto Ricans] want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” he tweeted nearly two weeks after Maria.
Distribution problems defined the response. Initial FEMA information reportedly told Puerto Ricans to apply for aid by Internet or phone. Early inadequacies – which FEMA claims to have fixed – affected the reach of aid. Out of 68,000 requests for temporary roofs, just 54% had been completed as The World Weekly went to press.
Aid has simply not reached everyone on the island. “Still today, on January 10, 2018, there remain communities who are cut off or displaced by the collapse of roads and bridges, and lack access to essential services,” Kamille V. Camacho Monclova, brigade coordinator of the Puerto Rican-based community outreach organisation Iniciativa Comunitaria, told The World Weekly.
Power has also returned slowly to the island. The damage was certainly extensive, with 80% of the island’s utility poles and almost all transmission lines brought down. But 113 days after Maria, only 55% of Puerto Rican customers have electricity. It is the longest blackout in US history.
Explanations vary. Fixing a 44-year-old system on an island around 1600km from the US mainland, compounded by recent reports of local authorities hoarding electrical supplies, have apparently slowed repair times. “We could have done this work that has taken us a week, in probably one day in the states,” said Dan Kelner of the US Army Corps of Engineers in an interview.
This has done little to stifle criticism of the glacial timeframe for essential materials to reach Puerto Rico. The Corps reported this week that 12,000 out of 31,000 requested poles had arrived. “If we were in Connecticut 100 days after a hurricane and half the state didn’t have power, there would be riots in the streets,” said US Senator Chris Murphy last week after a visit to Puerto Rico to observe the recovery.
Experts have looked for answers in America’s historical connection to Puerto Rico. “As a US territory it has an ambiguous status that can be used to push the island further away or towards the USA,” says Luiz Martinez-Fernandez, professor of History at the University of Central Florida, “but we have to go back to 1898-1900 to find similar mistreatment in times of crisis.”
Puerto Rico has been an “unincorporated territory” of the United States since 1898. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, with some control over their internal affairs, but their elected resident commissioner in the House of Representatives has no voting rights.
Some Puerto Ricans are resolved to adapt to the chaos. “When I grew up, there wasn't electricity here,” Antonio Quintana told VICE News, “if we survived then, how are we not going to survive now?”
Many, however, believe that the authorities have failed them. “Gratitude cannot be extended to government agencies, given that their response has not been in line with the severity of the situation,” tells Ms. Monclova. Charitable organisations and NGOs are deemed to have filled this void.
Alexis Santos-Lozada, director of applied demography at Pennsylvania State University, recently conducted a survey of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Overall, 72% branded the federal government’s response as “poor,” compared to a majority classification of “good” for private organisations and NGOs. Most strikingly, few believed the information coming out Puerto Rico. When asked about the death count, 90% of respondents classified it as “bad.”
Major economic obstacles lie ahead. Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy in May 2017, with an estimated $73 billion in debt. Some are predicting that the economic damage of the hurricane could cause an avalanche of mortgage foreclosures: 90,000 borrowers are believed to have become delinquent after Maria. This was only compounded by the “economic hurricane” of the Republican tax bill, with some arguing that the increased tax burden for US companies operating on the island has put 47% of Puerto Rico’s GDP at risk.
Socio-economic strain has prompted a growing exodus to the US mainland. Florida Governor Rick Scott claimed last week that the state had handled 280,000 Puerto Rican arrivals since Maria. Professor Santos-Lozada told TWW that he believes this move is temporary and, dependant on post-Maria recovery, “there will be this flow back from those who have moved to the mainland.”
Nidia Irizarry was one of those who left Puerto Rico. Foreclosure threatened her home and her daughter, who has cancer, was suffering in the heat. “At least for now, I’m not even considering going back. Puerto Rico no longer offers me what I need, in any way,” she told the Orlando Sentinel.
Proposals are flying around for how to rejuvenate the island. The Puerto Rican government is looking to modernise its infrastructure to better withstand future storms. Governor Rosselló requested $94 billion in aid from Congress. Indeed, there are wider calls to ease Puerto Rico’s financial decay. “Without debt forgiveness, Puerto Rico will see no economic growth and the island’s future becomes even bleaker,” argues Eric LeCompte, executive director of financial non-profit Jubilee USA Network.
For now, Congress is focusing on allocating Puerto Rico one part of the $81 billion aid bill for disaster-affected areas in the US. It is currently stranded in the Senate.
Amidst it all, Puerto Rican politicians are taking action. On the back of a pro-statehood result in last year’s referendum, and defying vast constitutional obstacles, this week seven members of Puerto Rico’s ‘shadow’ congressional delegation presented their credentials in Washington DC and demanded to be seated.
For Governor Rosseló, Hurricane Maria exposed the injustices of Puerto Rico’s second-class treatment by America. “Because we don’t have political power, because we don’t have representatives, senators, no vote for president, we are treated as an afterthought.”