‘People Are Getting Desperate’ in Puerto Rico as Federal Response Not Equal to the Crisis

Will the U.S. and other wealthier nations start to step up to help the poorer, more vulnerable communities as the impacts of climate change become increasingly more severe?

Heydee Perez and her son, Yenel Calera, have not received any aid one week after Hurricane Maria.
Heydee Perez and her son, Yenel Calera, have not received any aid one week after Hurricane Maria. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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This blog was co-written by Alejandro Dávila and Keith Rushing.

Myrna Conty has lived through three decades of storms in her native Puerto Rico, but none of those compare to what she’s lived in the past month following Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“It’s like an atomic bomb hit us. It’s like a war zone,” she says in Spanish about the destruction she’s seen. “I lived through [Hurricanes] Hugo, George, Hortense, and this is catastrophic. Actually, catastrophic comes short.”

Conty, an environmentalist and president of Amigos del Río Guaynabo, said the island is in shambles, with no electricity, running water or reliable communication. Fuel is running low in gas stations, too. “People are getting desperate,” she says while speaking from a parking lot, which as far she knows is the only place near her home in Guaynabo—in northern Puerto Rico—that gets cell phone reception.

In the past two weeks, everyone from elected officials to celebrities made public appeals for speedier and more substantial relief efforts by the U.S.  government. Over the weekend, President Trump attacked the mayor of San Juan—who has been been working tirelessly to help local residents, according to press accounts—accusing of her of poor leadership after she made desperate appeals for more federal help saying that people were dying.

Trump has also taken criticism for seeming to focus more on a controversy surrounding professional football than the Puerto Rico crisis. When he did mention it, he praised the federal government’s response so far and tweeted about the island’s “broken infrastructure” and “massive debt” as if to blame the island for its problems. He also made excuses for the pace of federal aid, saying the island was in “the middle of the ocean.”

The reality is that Puerto Rico’s broken infrastructure reflects the island’s unequal development and share of power compared to the mainland, as well as its greater vulnerability to climate-related crises. The response to Puerto Rico in this hour of need raises broader concerns of whether the United States and wealthier nations will respond to the needs of poorer, more vulnerable communities that have contributed far less to climate change as the impacts of climate change grow worse.

Puerto Rico has far less political power than Florida and Texas which have 60 congressional representatives who can push the federal government to assist their recoveries from Irma and Harvey. But Puerto Rico—an unincorporated territory the U.S. seized from Spain during the Spanish American War in 1898—has only one “resident commissioner” in Congress who cannot cast votes.

As an article by Inside Climate News points out, Puerto Ricans use one-third as much energy per capita and emit less than half the carbon dioxide that drive climate change as those in the rest of the U.S. At the same time, Puerto Ricans, on average, have less income. Forty-four percent live below the poverty line without basic necessities, making them particularly vulnerable to the myriad natural disasters that climate change is making worse. Nonetheless, the federal government under the Trump Administration has moved to neglect human-caused climate change, communicating that it is not something worthy of attention or action.

“I call on President Donald Trump to get his head together. Climate change is real,” said Conty. “The hurricanes have become more intense.” Although Puerto Rico had not been hit by a Category 4 or 5 hurricane since 1928, it was just hit by two major hurricanes of this caliber in less than a month.

Almost the entire island of 3.4 million people is without power, some 60 percent don’t have water and 80 percent of the crop was destroyed. Homes all over the island have been demolished, roads and bridges have been washed out and people from several communities have still not been reached. Meanwhile, neighborhoods are underwater and food and medical supplies at clinics and hospitals are running out.

Congressional Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), who is Puerto Rican, has joined other lawmakers in calling on Trump to offer the same level of federal support that was offered to Texas and Florida following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Puerto Ricans generally have to pay almost twice as much for commercial goods because of a law called the Jones Act that requires that only U.S. flagged ships transport goods to U.S. ports.

On Tuesday, Velazquez joined Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) in calling for the Jones Act to be waived, as it was in Florida and Texas, to expedite delivery of food, medicine, clothing and building supplies. On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security waived the Jones Act for Puerto Rico, but only for a 10-day period.

“Lawmakers [are] calling on Trump to offer the same level of federal support that was offered to Texas and Florida following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.”

Velazquez, who went to Puerto Rico after the storm to witness the devastation, told NPR: “This is a Puerto Rico that I didn’t recognize—the flooding, the streets, houses under water, people begging for water, no food, isolated areas very hard to reach.”

Velazquez was unable to reach her family members for days and was finally able to talk to a sister three days ago.

According to Velazquez, the federal response has not been proportional to the depth of the crisis. She predicts a massive migration to the mainland U.S. as Puerto Ricans seek to escape dire conditions and treatment as second class citizens. Conty expects recovery to be a slow process. “With [Hurricane] George, we were without water or electricity for a whole month. This time I think it’ll be six months, though six months would actually be quick.”

Besides recovery, Conty is also concerned about the environmental mess that Puerto Rico might be facing in the coming months. (Myrna Conty has been working with Earthjustice for years to resist a proposed incinerator slated for Arecibo in northwestern Puerto Rico that would increase air pollution.)

There are coal ash issues in the south that may need attention following the flooding, says Conty, adding that overrun rivers across the island are bringing with them waste and other forms of pollution. “We are at risk of numerous health problems,” she says. “Trash is a problem. We need to reduce and reuse, that’s crucial now.”

Though the island is living through the largest natural disaster it has seen in nearly a century, Conty sees beauty in people’s resilience and the community’s eagerness to help each other. “We are happy to be alive and strangers are helping strangers,” she says. Communities on their own “are clearing downed trees and clearing roads. Children are away from TVs and playing on the streets. There are some positive things.”

To learn more about how you can help Puerto Rico and other communities hit by recent natural disasters click here.

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Alejandro is a public affairs and communications officer at Earthjustice. His work is focused on healthy communities issues.