Puerto Rico is far from recovery, so why did Congress reject another relief package?

Yet again, Congress rejected a disaster relief package for Puerto Rico and the president spouted more disparaging comments about the island.

Meanwhile, shattered and shuttered houses are still standing. Puerto Ricans, denied FEMA help to rebuild, are living in broken buildings. Communities, working hard to install solar panels on the roofs of community laundromats, are anticipating that another storm could easily knock down the power grid again and disable the water system.

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The island has a long way to go to full recovery and its residents are doing all they can. Yet, we are hammered with comments from the White House about “that country” (Puerto Rico is still part of the U.S.), and the massive aid (erroneously reported as $91 billion when it’s closer to $11 billion). This only heightens the pain Puerto Ricans already endured for more than a year and a half. Currently, over 100,000 of the poorest households in Puerto Rico face food insecurity because their food stamps have expired.

When Category 4 winds from Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, they did more than just wreak incredible storm damage. One of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, Maria also exposed and exacerbated long-standing problems on the island. With this year’s hurricane season fast approaching, it is inexcusable that people in some of the hardest-hit areas have yet to receive a penny of the billions of U.S. federal dollars pledged for recovery.

Many Americans only experience Puerto Rico as tourist, basking in the endless Caribbean sun and beauty of old, cobblestoned San Juan. The reality was very different after Maria. Communities were digging out after the storm and waiting for federal aid to arrive. It highlighted the high rates of poverty and inequality here in the United States. The bungled federal response continues to leave Puerto Ricans behind.

Consider this: If Puerto Rico were a country, it would be the third most unequal country in the world and one where inequality — the gap between the rich and poor — has increased the most since 1990. If Puerto Rico were the 51st state, it would be twice as poor as Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state. Not surprisingly, kids suffer disproportionately with 84 percent of children living in areas of high poverty and adversity.

Philip Alston, the UN Rapporteur for Poverty and Human Rights concluded in his 2018 report that poverty on the island is strongly related to the colonial status of Puerto Rico. He underscored that the Financial Oversight Board established by the U.S. Congress to operate in Puerto Rico has demonstrated little concern for social protection of the poor and vulnerable. While Maria hit everyone hard, the poor and disadvantaged suffered the most, with poor women paying the highest price.

FEMA’s grossly mismanaged response to Hurricane Maria made the situation worse, with some Puerto Ricans going months without power or water. In the mountains of Adjuntas in the interior, Yahaira raised her two teenage sons in the dark for 10 months following Maria until she installed solar panels with the help of community organizations. Like many Puerto Ricans, Yahaira lives daily under the constant threat of future storms even while recovering from the trauma of Maria. A new Hurricane season is just two months away.

Despite erroneous declarations of $91 billion in recovery funds, the Trump administration has refused to disburse dollars already allocated by Congress, opposes any additional dollars for food stamps and even threatens to divert emergency aid for Puerto Rico to pay for a pointless wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. This is unspeakably cruel. Congress and the administration must stop politicizing humanitarian aid and swiftly pass a disaster relief bill for more aid to Puerto Rico.  The administration should immediately release the $18 billion allocated to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through the Community Development Block Grant — Disaster Recovery program. Congress must demand immediate corrective action from HUD and ensure the administration expeditiously releases the funds.

But we must also have accountability to ensure that the dollars are going to those who need it most or that the process of determining how it is being spent is adequate. The Puerto Rican government must ensure that community members are meaningfully consulted in the development of disaster recovery plans. Congress and HUD have a key role to play in ensuring that recovery dollars reach the most vulnerable. 

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Legislation, such as the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act, could help ensure recovery dollars reach all impacted households by guaranteeing funds are allocated equitably between housing and infrastructure priorities and among homeowners, renters and people experiencing homelessness. The act would also make data on the impact of the disaster and how resources are spent public, promoting transparency, allowing effective public participation in the development of state recovery plans, and helping local governments and philanthropic organizations identify unmet needs.

Hurricane Maria was the strongest and most devastating hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in memory.  If federal recovery aid continues to be delayed, politicized and badly planned managed, Maria’s path of devastation will continue to grow.

Fatema Sumar is Oxfam America’s vice president of Global Programs, and previously the regional deputy vice president for Europe, Asia, Pacific and Latin America at the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation.