"Neglect and Bureaucracy": Six Months After Maria, Trump Condemned for Failed Response in Puerto Rico

By Jessica Corbett
March 21, 2018

It has been exactly six months since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico, but thousands of residents of the American territory still lack electricity or are unable to return home, illustrating how the Trump administration and Congress have failed to adequately address the crisis that followed the devastating storm in September.

Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan and an outspoken critic of the floundering federal relief efforts.

The Associated Press reports that "crews already have restored water to 99 percent of clients and power to 93 percent of customers, but more than 100,000 of them still remain in the dark and there are frequent power outages."

The interim director of the beleaguered Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), Justo Gonzalez, said he doesn't expect the island to be fully powered until May, which will be, as the AP notes, "eight months after the Category 4 storm destroyed two-thirds of the island's power distribution system -- and just as the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season is about to start."

While the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York estimates that about 135,000 Puerto Ricans fled to the mainland after Maria, those who stayed behind are far from prepared to battle another season of intense storms.

"There's so much left to do. We're still fighting to get our lights back on," Mariangelie Ortiz Ortiz, a student at the island's University of Turabo and a volunteer with two local organizations, wrote in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday. "We're working collectively to lift ourselves out of this nightmare, but we can't do it on our own."

"I struggle to understand why the United States government continues to withhold the aid we were promised," Ortiz added. "We're tired of being treated like second-class citizens. The Trump administration must honor its commitment to Puerto Rico. Our hurricane-ravaged island may no longer be in the headlines, but we're still suffering, and we need help."

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are among the federal lawmakers who are fighting for additional aid for Puerto Rico. They acknowledged the six-month anniversary by condemning the US government's response so far and demanding more action by the Trump administration and Congress.

Warren, in a piece published Tuesday on Medium, wrote that "recovery is happening  --  but too slowly," noting that "Puerto Rico has received only a fraction of the financial assistance it requested from the federal government." Echoing demands she has made on Capitol Hill, Warren called on her colleagues to pass legislation that provides federal assistance for the island's battered electrical grid; additional housing for those who have been displaced; mental health services; and college students who hope to continue earning their degrees.

"I'm fighting to ensure that every penny of federal disaster relief goes to those in need, not to Wall Street vulture funds," Warren declared, referring to the island's struggle with substantial debt, which has hindered the recovery. "And I'll keep fighting for disaster and debt relief for Puerto Rico."

However, as Naomi Klein outlined in The Intercept on Tuesday, as Puerto Ricans plead for improvements to the government's contributions to the ongoing recovery, there is a war of ideas raging on the island over how exactly to rebuild.

"One dream is grounded in a desire for people to exercise collective sovereignty over their land, energy, food, and water; the other in a desire for a small elite to secede from the reach of government altogether, liberated to accumulate unlimited private profit," Klein explained.

"At the core of this battle," Klein noted, "is a very simple question: Who is Puerto Rico for? Is it for Puerto Ricans, or is it for outsiders? And after a collective trauma like Hurricane Maria, who has a right to decide?"

Displaced Puerto Ricans and critics of the US government's response protested outside the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. They were joined by Democratic Reps. Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.) and Darren Soto (Fla.), who are of Puerto Rican descent, as well as Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), whose district includes one of the largest Puerto Rican communities in the country.

While a FEMA spokesman told NBC News that due to lack of power and potable water, the agency is still distributing "50,000 meals and 50,000 liters a day to parts of the island," the agency's on-the-ground efforts have been hobbled by scandals over the past six months. As Democracy Now! reported last month, multiple contractors have failed to deliver necessary items, ranging from tarps to meals.

And despite the fact that 2017 was the costliest year on record for damage from disasters like the hurricane that destroyed Puerto Rico, the Trump administration's four-year strategic plan for FEMA, released late last week, does not include a single mention of "climate change," even as global warming amplifies the destructiveness of extreme weather events.

"It's impossible to talk about what happened in Puerto Rico without talking about climate change," Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of the Brooklyn-based Latino group UPROSE, one of the organizations working on a 'just recovery' for the island, told Klein.

"It would be foolish for us to think that this is the last storm, that there aren't going to be other recurring extreme weather events," Yeampierre added, concluding that if recovery efforts properly account for long-term sustainability, Puerto Rico could be a model that enables the US and the rest of the world to "start really thinking about how you prepare for the fact that climate change is here."

Jessica Corbett is a staff writer with Common Dreams.

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