‘Puerto Rico wasn’t destroyed by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico was destroyed decades and decades ago.’
Puerto Rico’s battered infrastructure has made it more difficult to deliver social services to those most in need, including impoverished women who are at risk of domestic violence and sexual assault.
That’s the finding of Vilma González-Castro, a women’s rights and domestic violence activist who has worked to try to improve the delivery of social services in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. island in September 2017.
González-Castro was joined this week by Dr. Pablo Méndez-Lázaro, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Public Health and an expert on extreme weather events and their impact on public health in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the continental U.S. The two addressed a forum hosted by Oxfam, which has made Puerto Rico’s plight a central priority.
Before Maria hit Puerto Rico, according to González-Castro, 44.2 percent of the island’s approximately 3.5 million residents lived in poverty. But the poverty rate among women was 58.6 percent and the poverty rate among women with children under the age of 18 was 69.6 percent. “We are completely sure that these rates increased after Maria,” she said.
Domestic violence and sexual assault hotlines collapsed during the hurricane, worsening an intersection between gender violence, mental health and substance abuse. And inadequate infrastructure – such as a lack of transportation – made things worse.
“People don’t have information as to where they can go to get restraining and protective orders,” she said. “That is an issue too. And if they don’t have transportation, there is no way they can get help from the government agencies.”
Part of the problem, explains Dr. Méndez-Lázaro, is that the island’s infrastructure has been neglected for decades. “Puerto Rico wasn’t destroyed by Hurricane Maria,” he says. “Puerto Rico was destroyed decades and decades ago.”
Example: After Hurricane George swept across the island in 1998, inflicting $2 billion in damages and resulting in eight fatalities, at least officially, the government ordered that portable electric generators be installed at all of Puerto Rico’s 300 major water pumping stations. Problem is, those generators were not properly maintained, causing massive shortages of potable water on an island where water is never in short supply. After Maria hit, “We failed in managing the interconnectivity. We didn’t have any redundancy. We didn’t have any diversity,” says Dr. Méndez-Lázaro.
And when the infrastructure failed, that meant electricity failed. Water supplies failed. Water sanitation failed. Transportation failed. All of those failures led to significant fatalities – now estimated in the thousands, compared with the “official” death toll of 64. (Hurricane Maria is now thought to be the second deadliest hurricane to strike the United States, behind only an unnamed storm that struck Galveston, Texas in September 1900, killing an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people.)
Another problem: About 60 percent of the island’s population lives in flood-prone areas, including almost 400,000 households. In one municipality alone, 15,000 landslides were reported in the wake of Maria. Some of those homes should be relocated – that’s part of building up infrastructure – but there are political problems relating to telling people where they may and may not live. “There are decisions that need to be made but no one wants to make them because they have political implications,” Dr. Méndez-Lázaro says.
Many have blamed the leadership in the continental U.S. for Puerto Rico’s problems – FEMA, Congress, the Trump Administration, for starters. But Dr. Méndez-Lázaro also blames leaders and governments on the island.
“People know we have a dysfunctional government,” he says. “Corruption in federal government. Corruption in state government. Corruption in local government.”
There may be plenty of blame to go around – but it remains true that it is the federal government that has the resources to help Puerto Rico recover, just as the federal government has provided such assistance to other places beset by disaster.
Meanwhile, hurricane season is now underway. There are no named systems in the Atlantic Ocean as of today. There will be, soon.
“A hurricane can hit us in a few months or in five years, I don’t know,” Dr. Méndez-Lázaro says.