U.S. response to Maria exemplifies neocolonial neglect

In the past month, Hurricanes Irma and Maria have devastated Puerto Rico, leaving the island’s infrastructure in peril. The U.S. federal government and President Trump have perpetuated dangerous conditions in Puerto Rico by not adequately helping the island deal with the aftermath of the hurricane. Their response to the widespread damage exemplifies the neocolonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth under the 1950 Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act, meaning that Puerto Ricans are American citizens but do not vote in presidential elections. Puerto Ricans have one representative in the House who can vote and serve on committees, but cannot vote on the House floor (The New York Times, “Puerto Rico: What Other Americans Should Know,” 09.25.2017). Yearly federal taxes from Puerto Rico add up to about $3 billion.

The structural inequalities present in these laws likely do not weigh heavily on the minds of many Americans. This neocolonial relationship has provided justification for Trump to blame the 3.4 million Americans in Puerto Rico for the hurricanes’ damage while simultaneously providing aid more quickly and in greater amounts to the recent devastation in Texas and Florida. Instead, Trump criticized and reminded Puerto Rico of its outstanding debt of $115 billion dollars (Washington Post, “Puerto Rico is being treated like a colony after Hurricane Maria,” 09.26.2017).

The current state of infrastructure, particularly electricity and water, is dire. The entire island relies on one government-owned power company, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). PREPA filed for bankruptcy in July with a debt of $9 billion, and admitted its infrastructure was “degraded and unsafe” (Reuters, “Puerto Rico power grid faces generational threat in Hurricane Maria,” 09.19.2017). PREPA charges far higher rates than power companies on the mainland United States, and its reluctance to increase already steep rates means that infrastructure fell into disrepair. After Hurricane Irma, 70 percent of the population was without power (The New York Times, “Hurricane Maria Updates: In Puerto Rico, the Storm ‘Destroyed Us,’” 09.21.2017). After Hurricane Maria, 80 percent of the transmission grid is offline, meaning it will likely be four to six months before power is fully restored for the island (The New York Times, “Facing months in the dark, ordinary life in Puerto Rico is ‘beyond reach,’” 09.22.2017). More than one-third of wastewater treatment plants have been rendered useless by the hurricane, and raw sewage has entered the waterways (Environmental Protection Agency, “EPA Hurricane Maria Updates for Monday, October 2,” 10.02.2017). To make matters worse, most of the island’s water supply relies on electricity, and there is a scant supply of fuel to power generators (CNN, “Getting drinking water to more in Puerto Rico brings challenges,” 09.28.2017).

The effects of a power loss are compounded by the water shortage and the decreased ability of overburdened hospitals to treat patients. Currently, around 44 percent of Puerto Ricans don’t have access to clean drinking water (The Guardian, “Hurricane Maria pushes Puerto Rico’s struggling hospitals to crisis point,” 09.27.2017).

The impact of the hurricanes in Puerto Rico exemplifies the hypocrisy of climate change. Though exacerbated and largely driven by countries with economic and political power, the effects of climate change will be felt by those already vulnerable and lacking the means to protect themselves from and recover after natural disasters. As the strength and frequency of natural disasters continues to increase due to our unwillingness to address climate change as a real threat to lives and livelihoods, those who suffer most will be those who are least equipped to deal with the environmental crisis.

Trump, meanwhile, has received criticism for his appalling response to the crisis in Puerto Rico. While companies and nonprofit organizations have donated generously, Mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulín Cruz criticized the federal government for not sending enough food and water (NBC News, “Puerto Rico Crisis: San Juan Mayor Pleads for Federal Aid, Trump Hits Back,” 09.30.2017). In turn, Trump criticized government officials in Puerto Rico, saying “they want everything done for them” (Huffington Post, “Trump Downplays Puerto Rico’s Suffering,” 10.03.2017). Others have condemned the imbalance of military response to hurricanes in Texas and Florida as compared to in Puerto Rico, from where Trump withdrew military presence before Maria hit, despite knowing the storm would directly cross the island (Politico, “The Military Was Ready in Texas and Florida. What Went Wrong in Puerto Rico?” 10.02.2017).

In his delayed visit to Puerto Rico, Trump compared Maria to Hurricane Katrina, insinuating that the damage to Puerto Rico was not “a real catastrophe” like Katrina was because the death toll is currently lower (Huffington Post). He should instead be pledging greater amounts of aid to the island and addressing the historical inequality of Puerto Ricans. Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria makes it more than clear that he does not see contributing aid that could save the lives of Puerto Ricans as a priority.

Despite the inadequate federal response, there are ways for we as the American public to contribute relief to our fellow citizens’ plight. If you want to help, it is best to donate money to relief agencies as opposed to sending purchased goods, according to the USAID Center for International Disaster Information’s “Guidelines for Giving.” Relief agencies are better able to purchase goods tailored to the needs of disaster survivors and distribute those supplies as quickly as possible. The following are a few charitable organizations with campaigns exclusively dedicated to hurricane relief in Puerto Rico:

The One America Appeal for hurricane relief is accepting donations for hurricane relief in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico, the funds will go to United for Puerto Rico/Unidos por Puerto Rico: Donate directly to United for Puerto Rico here: UnidosPorPuertoRico.com/en.

The National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce is matching every dollar donated: NPR-chamber.org/disaster-relief.

Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico has set up a resource to provide food, water and other aid to Puerto Rico.

ConPRmetidos, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring and improving the power grid and building safer, more stable homes in Puerto Rico, has also set up a real-time relief fund.

Puerto Ricans in Action is a Los Angeles-based working group of partnered businesses, organizations and people with a goal of unifying Puerto Ricans in the area. They are currently raising funds for hurricane relief.

Sending aid to disaster-stricken areas in the form of funds, food and basic household and medical supplies is not unhelpful, but it cannot be the only form of aid we offer. It is essential to back verbal and metaphorical statements of solidarity with concrete action. We must see this disaster as one of both national and personal importance. Furthermore, we need to support members of our community who have been affected. In order not to further burden people directly affected by Hurricane Maria with the unfair responsibility of educating about its impact, we must actively keep ourselves up to date in developing news about the situation so as. Given the current political relationship between Puerto Rico and the federal government, as well as the inevitability of more frequent and intense natural disasters spurred by climate change, this is not a one-time issue or one that will go away on its own. We will need to be active, aware and vigilant in order to effect the political changes necessary to lessen the impact of natural disasters in the not-too-distant future.

—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.

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