Puerto Rico and the United States in the Face of Disaster

On September 20, barely a week after Hurricane Irma brushed its coast, the island of Puerto Rico was hit full force by Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 hurricane. Although Maria was smaller than Irma, it was far more devastating, because it passed directly over the island, only 25 miles from San Juan, at  peak intensity. Maria is the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years, and the destruction has been described as ‘apocalyptic’.

A woman stands in her destroyed house. / https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/9/26/16365994/hurricane-maria-2017-puerto-rico-san-juan-humanitarian-disaster-electricty-fuel-flights-facts

The entire island has gone dark, as the hurricane destroyed their already outdated electrical grid. This has left nearly 3.4 million people without electricity. The island’s electric company, PREPA, was already several billions of dollars in debt, and did not have the money to modernize Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. There aren’t nearly enough workers to repair the electrical systems – young people have been leaving the island en masse because of the tanking economy. It could take up to six months to restore power to the island.

A majority of Puerto Rico’s cellphone towers have been knocked out, leaving many people without anyway to contact their families on the mainland or call for help. The National Guard and other first responders are also struggling to communicate, hindering the already slow aid process.

To make matters worse, food, water, and fuel are scarce. About half of the people on the island are without running water. Most Puerto Ricans have had to rely on gas-powered generators for energy, but fuel is very hard to come by. People are waiting for hours in line to get gas and food from the gas stations and supermarkets that haven’t already been decimated. Banks are also running out of cash, so the little resources that do exist can rarely be purchased.

Damage in Puerto Rico / https://www.nbcnews.com/slideshow/dark-days-long-nights-descend-puerto-rico-n805571

Because of the quickly disappearing resources, a medical crisis is inevitable – without fuel to run generators, hospitals can’t power life-saving equipment. Several people have already died because the hospitals they were at ran out of fuel.  This problem is only getting worse as there is an unstoppable influx of hurricane-related injuries and infectious diseases.

The magnitude of the devastation has made getting aid a difficult process. FEMA was stretched thin after the destruction caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida. In the first few days after the hurricane, only three ships were deployed for Puerto Rico for fear that ports were too damaged to dock multiple ships. Since then, the relief efforts have been steadily growing – thousands of pounds of supplies have been making their way to the island, along with a few thousand troops. The USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, has been deployed to Puerto Rico as of September 29th.

On the 28th of September, the Trump administration temporarily waived the Jones Act. The law, which was passed in 1920, requires goods shipped between locations in the United States to be transported by ships built, owned, and operated by Americans. While this is normally meant to stimulate maritime industry and commerce, it can severely hinder relief efforts, as American shipping is usually the most expensive. “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster,” Senator John McCain said.

However, the federal government’s response is still inadequate. “Obviously, what we asked for and what they sent was not enough for a storm that impacted every town in Puerto Rico from north to south and east to west”, said Ramon Rosario, a spokesman for the governor. After the extensive relief efforts in Texas and Florida, many believe the government isn’t doing enough. For comparison, Connecticut and Puerto Rico are nearly identical in landmass and population size. If the entirety of Connecticut lost power, and were running dangerously low on food and water, what would the response be like? We can imagine a much greater effort would have been made.

While part of this discrepancy can be tied to the geography of the island, it is more likely that Puerto Rico’s status as a territory is playing a large part. This liminal position, where the island is not quite independent or a state, has caused problems in the past. Puerto Rico does not have voting representatives in Congress or electoral votes in general presidential elections. The growing economic crisis, which was disastrous even years before the recent hurricane season, was worsened in part by the colonial status of the island. Territories can’t file for debt relief, which has left the island without many options for restructuring their economy and infrastructure.

Despite this, Puerto Ricans are American citizens too, and the American government owes them the same support as all other Americans residing within the country’s borders. The federal government enjoys the benefits of island territories, but has denied them representation and support for decades. The editors of an article by America Magazine wrote, “Hurricane Maria is a reminder that this two-tiered system of American citizenship is neither democratic nor tenable.” Hopefully, the government will continue to increase aid heading towards Puerto Rico and begin discussing a long-term aid package. And perhaps, in light of this disaster, the government and U.S. voters will be reminded of the consequences of an unaccountable government, and bring the question of Puerto Rico’s status to the forefront of the conversation.

 

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