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Puerto Rico: One year after Hurricane Maria

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One year ago, at 6:15 a.m., Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico. It caused devastation that shocked even those used to such events. As the rain and wind abated, the 3.4 million American citizens on the island could see that they needed help, badly. They turned to our federal government and pleaded for it. One year later, as we commemorate that fateful day, we must take a clear look back at what the federal government did (and did not) do, what impact it had, and how things can and should change.

The administration was sorely unprepared to respond to a storm of Hurricane Maria’s magnitude in Puerto Rico. FEMA’s after-action report, released in July, found that the disaster response plans for the island were out of date, and did not take into account the fiscal problems of the local government. Additionally, FEMA’s own agency staffing plans for multiple disaster response were not followed- and the agency remained understaffed by thousands of employees as the hurricane approached the island.

{mosads}This poor planning led to a poor performance once disaster struck, with horrific results. Supplies and staff were not in place in sufficient numbers prior to the storm. Key resources were unable to be put in place immediately after the storm, and several critical resources, including the U.S.N.S. Comfort, were not deployed for several days. The telecommunications system was mostly non-functional, meaning people could not communicate to identify emergency needs – and it took months to restore anywhere close to full service. The electrical grid went down entirely, and was only recently cobbled back together. People were unable to receive needed medical services. A second disaster occurred, one that was more avoidable and disappointing that the first.

It is hard to look at all this and not see the imprint of colonialism. Without voting representatives in Congress, Puerto Rico could not fully leverage congressional support to force recovery funds to flow to the island faster, and to ask questions when the recovery was clearly running off track. When it became clear that resources were not deployed in a timely or equitable manner, Puerto Rico’s complaints were largely ignored. Reports have shown that Florida and Texas received more resources in their hurricane response efforts than Puerto Rico did.  Puerto Rico was made to wait weeks longer for the same types of federal financial assistance, and the federal government is now pulling back on that assistance even with significant work uncompleted. Other disaster-hit areas also received more respect from the president- whose own short visit to the island can be summarized by the image of him throwing paper towels to individuals looking for hope instead.

So what happens now?  How do we make up for and fix all this?  First, we need to ensure that federal aid passed by Congress gets out the door of the federal agencies, and starts to work in the manner intended. Second, we must ensure that FEMA and other federal agencies do not pull back on their commitments, and work to ensure that Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans, have the best chance possible to build the island back in a better and more sustainable way. Third, we must attempt to learn the lessons from this to prevent a repeat performance in the future. Lastly, the president needs to stop undermining recovery efforts with nonsensical twitter rants that dehumanize and delegitimize the American citizens living in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans, persevere despite all this. One year later, the people of Puerto Rico have made progress despite the administration’s lackluster response. However, what they, and we who care about the island, ask for is an acknowledgment that the response was not good enough, that an unprecedented amount of people died as a result, and that we can, and should, do better going forward. It is the very least President Trump and his administration can do for the millions of American citizens whose lives were turned upside down after the hurricane.

Congressman José E. Serrano, the longest currently-serving Latino Democrat and most senior Puerto Rican in the House of Representatives, has represented The Bronx in Congress since 1990. He is a senior member of the Appropriations committee, which has been instrumental in the allocation of emergency and disaster relief funding for the island post Hurricane Maria.

Tags Death toll Donald Trump FEMA Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico

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