Hurricanes Maria and Fiona show our shameful neglect of Puerto Rico and her 3.5 million U.S. citizens 


September 23, 2022

As my flight descended into San Juan, I was surprised and amazed to see what appeared to be hundreds and hundreds of swimming pools dotting the landscape of Puerto Rico’s capital. 

But as the airplane banked and descended further, and the landscape expanded outside my window, my amazement turned to horror and anguish: what appeared to be swimming pools, I now saw, were actually blue tarps, covering thousands and thousands of houses. 

That was in November 2018, 14 months after Hurricane Maria’s ferocity ravaged the U.S. island, ripping roofs off homes, killing more than 3,000 residents and causing  the longest blackout in U.S. history (11 months for much of the archipelago), made worse by an already shamefully decrepit infrastructure. 

Almost five years to the day after Maria, Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico this past Sunday and Monday. Fiona was no Category 5 Maria; deaths were relatively few, wind damage minimal. But the storm did dump 30 inches of rain on parts of the island, causing massive, record flooding, destroying streets, washing out bridges and leading to unprecedented landslides. Today, as this blog post goes to publication, first responders are still trying to reach up to half a dozen communities cut off from food and water; across the island, most are without power and many are without drinkable water. 

But when Fiona departed and residents began their clean-up and recovery efforts, the real story was not just the flooding and damage Fiona wrought. Rather, the full story was the failure to provide adequate help for Puerto Rico to recover from the last hurricane and prepare for the next one. Many share in this failure – Congress, past and current presidential administrations (although improvements have been seen under the Biden Administration), and decision-makers in Puerto Rico, both imposed and elected. 

“Five years after Maria, thousands of blue tarps are still visible across the island,” said Elizabeth Ponce, Executive Director of Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), a Puerto Rico nonprofit. “Flooding areas, poor planning, and housing inequalities continue to be a problem that needs to be addressed urgently. With the impact of Hurricane Fiona this weekend, the situation is even more dire.” 

Ponce’s written remarks, sent from Puerto Rico where she remains, were part of a news conference this week organized by Take Action for Puerto Rico, a campaign spearheaded by the Hispanic Federation, which has raised $50 million for post-Maria recovery and has funded 140 nonprofits, including many that provide first responder service such as helping elderly people in remote areas of the island receive health care. 

Since Maria’s unwelcome visit in 2017, Congress has approved $62 billion in funds for the island’s recovery. But according to an analysis published by Take Action for Puerto Rico, only $19.8 billion, or 32 percent, of that $62 billion, has actually been disbursed. Most of these funds flow through two federal agencies – FEMA and HUD. Of $20 billion allocated to HUD, only 4 percent ($823 million) has been distributed. The reasons behind the failure to disburse the funds are many – infighting in Congress, restrictions by the Trump Administration, and bureaucratic red tape among them. 

Among those participating in Take Action for Puerto Rico’s news conference were Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, whose New York constituents include one million Puerto Ricans, some of whom had to flee their homes due to Maria’s aftermath. 

“Hurricane Maria did unimaginable damage to Puerto Rico, leaving most of the nearly 3.5 million American citizens on the island without basic necessities such as power, food, medical supplies, and other critical items that we take for granted,” Gillibrand said. “Five years later, hit by yet another devastating hurricane, the people of Puerto Rico are again without power. Unfortunately, Hurricane Fiona is exposing the painfully slow-paced recovery process Puerto Ricans on the island have been dealing with for half a decade since Hurricane Maria battered the island.” 

One issue Schumer mentioned – both in the news conference and, later that day, on the floor of the Senate, was Puerto Rico’s failed, dilapidated, antiquated power grid.  Congress has allocated $12 billion to fix it, but little of that money has been used. Last year, a U.S.-Canadian private consortium, Luma Energy, was handed the contract to fix the grid; since the company took over, island residents say the frequency and duration of blackouts has actually increased. 

Despite the billions of dollars in federal aid, “very little” was done after Maria to rebuild the grid, Schumer said, adding that the island’s power system remains “almost 50 years out of date.” 

To give credit where it is due, the Biden Administration appears to have responded quickly and robustly to Fiona. Hundreds of FEMA workers were on the ground in Puerto Rico immediately after Fiona’s departure. And President Biden promised to absorb, through FEMA, “100 percent” of the cost of debris removal, search and rescue, power and water restoration, and food and shelter for the next month. 

Still, that won’t be enough. Congress must pass a supplemental appropriations bill that includes money for FEMA – not just for Puerto Rico but also for wildfires and flooding in the continental U.S. 

But even if we pay to fix the grid, fix the roads, repair the bridges, and replace those heartbreaking blue tarps with sturdy roofs, the job still won’t be done. 

Because, as the Hispanic Federation and Take Action for Puerto Rico know, a fundamental imbalance exists between the U.S. and the people of Puerto Rico. Although American citizens, Puerto Ricans are not eligible for SNAP or SSI benefits, and are blatantly discriminated against when it comes to Medicaid expenditures. (Puerto Rico gets limited, block-granted federal funding for its Nutrition Assistance Program, unlike the open-ended and more generous funding for SNAP in all states.) All of this has contributed to a staggering island poverty rate of 43.4 percent; in the 50 states, the poverty rate is 12.8 percent. 

“Sadly, it is at these times of emergencies when the unequal treatment in important federal programs that serve our most vulnerable constituents becomes more palpable,” said Carmen M. Feliciano, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, part of Puerto Rico’s government. “We will work hard to continue rebuilding Puerto Rico and will not rest until we receive equal treatment in health care, Social Security disability programs, and nutrition assistance programs.” 

Hurricanes Maria and Fiona did not cause America’s dysfunctionalism toward Puerto Rico. But they did expose our shameful neglect for all to see. 

[Although private donations cannot replace the need for adequate federal funding, private charities are playing an important role in assisting people in Puerto Rico in coping with the current crisis. Compiled by National Public Radio, Here’s how to help people in Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Fiona.)