Six months after Maria
Tuesday, March 20 marks six months since Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico, killing more than 1,000 people, destroying tens of thousands of homes, darkening much of the island for months, cutting access to clean water and uprooting the lives of millions of U.S. citizens.
Today protesters will gather in Washington, D.C. to denounce the ongoing humanitarian crisis and to urge comprehensive aid, both for families on the island and for displaced Puerto Ricans now living on the mainland.
Much attention on Puerto Rico has focused on things such as electricity, clean water, jobs and infrastructure. But an enormous part of Puerto Rico’s troubles is the failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to approve and process applications for assistance in rebuilding homes. The governor of Puerto Rico has estimated that 87,094 homes were totally destroyed and 385,703 were severely damaged.
And yet: Dr. Adi Martinez-Roman, executive director of the Access to Justice Fund Foundation in San Juan and a lawyer who helps organize legal assistance so Puerto Ricans can file claims with FEMA, says more than one million people have applied for FEMA assistance, but only 0.11 percent (roughly 1,000 people) have received the maximum grant of $33,300 to repair broken homes and belongings. For those who have received FEMA aid, the average payment is only $3,000. Martinez-Roman, who on Monday presented her findings at a forum hosted by Oxfam America, published an op-ed in The Hill newspaper on the same day. She writes:
“One essential element in expediting the recovery is ensuring that the U.S. citizens on the island have access to emergency assistance. FEMA provides crucial funds for families to put the pieces back together: to restore roofs, install windows, replace kitchens, furniture, and so much more. This assistance is especially vital in Puerto Rico, where the median income is roughly one-third what it is on the mainland ($19,606 vs. $55,322), and the economy is reeling under the impact of the storm.
“The strategies used to deliver FEMA aid are not effective in attending to local challenges, and numerous barriers are preventing those in need from receiving the aid to which they are entitled. Immediately after the storm hit, it was almost impossible to apply online for FEMA assistance: power and internet connection was down everywhere.
“Even as the island re-connected to the world, people then faced multiple barriers in the application process, including language. We heard many stories of FEMA inspectors unable to speak Spanish, a seemingly basic pre-requisite for working in Puerto Rico.”
On Tuesday, protesters in D.C. will rally at FEMA headquarters, and then will march on the U.S. Capitol to voice their demands. The event is organized by Power 4 Puerto Rico, a coalition made up of the Hispanic Federation and the Center for Popular Democracy, among other community organizations.
“We believe that the ones responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico are Congress, the Trump administration, and FEMA,” said Samy Nemir Olivares, a spokesperson for the Center for Popular Democracy in a written statement. “Their inaction and lack of attention have exacerbated the crisis.”
Power 4 Puerto Rico is demanding a comprehensive aid package, without any strings attached, that fulfills the estimated $95 billion some financial experts and Puerto Rico’s governor say is needed for the island to recover. Last month, the Senate approved an aid package for Puerto Rico which allocated $16 billion for recovery, but critics say it falls well short of the funds needed. Puerto Rico has requested $14.7 billion to rebuild its power grid alone, but only $2 billion was authorized for that purpose.
Tuesday’s rally will feature several families visiting from Puerto Rico as well as evacuees living on the mainland. Several lawmakers are expected to attend, including Reps. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), Luiz Gutierrez (D-IL), and Adriano Espaillat (D-NY). Rep. Espaillat is introducing the Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act, which would allow individuals to receive FEMA funds even if they do not have official deeds or titles to their property, which is a common problem in Puerto Rico, stopping people whose homes have been transferred informally among family members from getting help.
On Thursday, March 15, Velázquez made an impassioned speech on the House floor demanding more aid for Puerto Rico, speaking on behalf of her home town of Yabucoa, in which she says two-thirds of people remain without power.
Power 4 Puerto Rico has been organizing rallies on the 20th of every month since Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20.
“Our mission is to sound the alarm on this ongoing crisis, ignite pressure, and demand help,” Olivares said.