What the US should do to help Puerto Rico
© Getty Images

Puerto Rico is facing the worst humanitarian crisis in its modern history. As the population confronts the challenges of obliterated homes, flooded neighborhoods, desperate citizens trapped incomunicado without food or water for days, Puerto Ricans are still waiting for meaningful emergency relief to arrive. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Commonwealth government, and others have taken steps in providing assistance to those in need. However, the reality on the ground demands faster and much more aggressive rescue operations. 

Most of Puerto Rico – 99 percent – is without electricity, more than 75 percent lack running water, and 92.5 percent of cellular sites are down. The sheer number of torn houses, fallen trees or electrical lines and other debris obstructing roadways have blocked entire towns from the rest of the island, including the island-towns of Vieques and Culebra, where people are completely cut off from the main island. Tragedy was compounded this week, as three people died in hospitals due to the power outage.

ADVERTISEMENT
The level of destruction is unlike anything that this small but mighty island has seen in almost a century. Fortunately, Puerto Ricans are a resilient people, finding ways to help each other in the most creative and intense ways possible.

The Diaspora population in the states has also shown the best of camaraderie. In countless cities and towns across the U.S. mainland, Puerto Ricans are coming together and collecting emergency supplies, holding fundraising drives, connecting strangers and relatives, and helping each other cope as best as possible. Unfortunately, even this historic cooperation among our people, which is producing tons of much-needed donations for our loved ones suffering on the island, is no match for the obstacles stemming from insufficient action from the federal government.

Official and unofficial reports confirm that FEMA has slowed down the amount of shipments of all the aid collected in several states that it is allowing to leave for Puerto Rico. Even as Puerto Rican populations are doing our part, the logjam created by FEMA is precluding people in need from accessing medicine, water, food, path-clearing tools and other supplies they need. While logistics are difficult, the U.S. government has the resources and capability to do more. With some structural adjustments, FEMA could allow truckloads of water, batteries, clothing and other essentials to reach those languishing without supplies.

The administration can also deploy more military assets to provide fuel, generators, and telecommunications capabilities while proper reconstruction can even start to get under way. President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE issued a 180-day waiver of state matching fund requirements for emergency relief grants, but this should be a government-wide order that lasts years or as long as it takes to rebuild the battered Island. President Trump took a good first step in finally waiving the Jones Act for Puerto Rico, but only for 10 days. Most ships take a week to arrive in Puerto Rico so that will not be sufficient. The waiver should last at least one year. This anachronistic law, the Merchant Marine Act, dates to the 1920s and makes commercial ship deliveries too expensive in regular times, let alone a national crisis.

Congress should also do its part by approving an emergency supplemental spending measure that includes the following key elements: immediate emergency relief resources, infrastructure repair funds and investment in revamping an outdated electrical grid, lifting the Medicaid cap and other funding limitations on federal health programs, and economic development tools that allow for a speedier recovery given Puerto Rico’s 10-year economic and financial crises. Federal lawmakers approved a similar spending measure for the victims in Texas and Florida just a week after Hurricane Harvey. It is only fitting that the 3.4 million US.. citizens in the Isla del Encanto receive equitable and proportionate federal funding for relief efforts. The U.S. Virgin Islands – suffering after two major hurricanes as well – cannot be left behind either.

Americans have consistently opened their hearts, and demonstrated enormous generosity in times of crisis. We all remember the efforts led by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill ClintonBill ClintonAll five living former presidents to attend hurricane relief concert The Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE in the wake of the destructive tsunami that hit Indonesia, and after Hurricane Katrina. The outpouring of support for the victims demonstrated Americans’ compassion and willingness to lend a hand in a time of need. Puerto Rico is in desperate need for such generosity; not only from its fellow citizens in the U.S., but also from the federal government itself.

Puerto Ricans have fought with courage and distinction for Uncle Sam in every conflict since World War I. Their sacrifice has been recognized with countless distinctions and medals. It is high time for the United States of America to show the same dedication and loyalty to its citizens in Puerto Rico.

Mr. de Jesús was the former Deputy Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration and currently serves as Founder and Principal of FDJ Solutions, a DC-based consulting firm.