Politics and Governance

While Relief Stalls, Puerto Ricans Suffer

Photo: Matt (CC)

Your entire state loses power, and three weeks later you and 86.3% of your neighbors still can’t turn on their lights. Imagine spending day after day in a gas line, only to return with enough gas to make it home. Maybe tomorrow you’ll be able to buy enough to start your generator-it’s supposed to be very hot this week, and you’ve run out of ice to refrigerate your husband’s insulin. Your grocery store may have finally opened after a week, but all they’ve got are military-grade MREs. Your sister walks to your house from her place a couple miles away because the landlines and cell towers don’t work. She finally got in touch with a federal relief worker, and was told to sign up for emergency assistance online. Do you happen to know anyone close by with a Wi-Fi signal?

This is the apocalyptic-adjacent reality for the 3.4 million Americans living on the little island in the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico. It’s been over two weeks since Hurricane Maria made its historic landfall in the town of Yabucoa.  While thousands upon thousands of Puerto Ricans are currently in dire and urgent need of the very basics of life, the road ahead is its own slow-moving, unnatural disaster.


The Puerto Rican government’s economic and financial troubles go back decades, but the debt crisis that came to a head in 2015 is the pain-point felt most acutely. A mixture of local government mismanagement and corruption, changes to key sections of the IRS tax code, dried up corporate investments,  and the continued negative effects of the Jones Act all brought the island to the edge of financial ruin. In 2017, 44% of Puerto Ricans live in poverty, 10% are unemployed, and hundreds take to the streets to protest Governor Roselló’s austerity measures.

Then, Hurricane Maria hits.

Thousands of shipping containers stuffed with much needed food, water, and generators sat in the Port of San Juan, with no system in place to get the goods where they needed to be. Puerto Rico simply didn’t have the resources to properly prepare for the storm, and the federal government did not close the gap. It took six days for the Navy to announce the deployment of hospital ship USNS Comfort. It took President Trump eight days to enact a ten-day waive of the Jones Act. It took ten days for him to find the operations lacking in resources and send more money and boots on the ground under the supervision of a three-star general.

While Puerto Ricans are natural-born American citizens (a fact that is news to nearly half of Americans), islanders lack voting members in Congress. Because of this, the Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González and a consortium of members of Congress with ties to the island must plead with their colleagues to vote for aid to a commonwealth that cannot speak for itself without the clout of a vote to back it. Without true representation, Puerto Rico relies on the charity of a Congress who face no electoral urgency to vote on aid.

But when the president tweets that the federal response is going “great,” and Acting Homeland Security Secretary, Elaine Duke, says she is very “satisfied” with how government relief efforts are going, how can the American public understand the full force of the struggle Puerto Ricans face in their day-to-day lives?

In the absence of adequate governmental response, Puerto Ricans have looked elsewhere: private cruise operators evacuating hospitals, celebrity Puerto Ricans sending their own private planes and helicopters to get supplies where they need to be, and entrepreneur Elon Musk offering to help rebuild the aging and broken power grid with sustainable solar energy. However, these efforts fall far behind the disaster relief efforts made by the private sector in the wake of Harvey and Irma.

And while the relief comes late, while federal agencies fail to coordinate logistics with local municipalities, while the president tweets about the NFL, Puerto Rico waits.

And while the island waits, it grows hungrier, and thirstier, and sicker by the day.

UPDATE: The Jones Act waiver expired October 8th, and has not been renewed. The official death toll in Puerto Rico now stands at 48. 117 are counted missing. Both counts are expected to rise.

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