Puerto Rico: The Effect of Neglect
“What we are going to see is something close to a genocide. We are dying here. I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles. So, mayday we are in trouble.” (San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz-Sep. 29th, 2017)
It has been almost two months since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and left the island in shambles. There has been a mass outpouring of support from across the country. One notable example is the release of Lin Manuel Miranda’s newest song “Almost Like Praying” to raise money for the relief. Miranda, who became a household name after his hit musical Hamilton swept the nation by storm, is no stranger to writing benefit songs, having previously collaborated with Jennifer Lopez to write “Loves Makes the World Go Round” in response to the Pulse Nightclub shooting last summer. “Almost Like Praying,” with its star-studded cast of Latin American artists, offers a roll call of all 78 of Puerto Rico’s towns. This effectively symbolizing Puerto Rican unity in a time of great devastation, and the reassurance no one is being forgotten in a time when it is difficult to feel otherwise. According to a study conducted by the Quinnipiac University, 52% of Americans feel that President Trump doesn’t care about the situation in Puerto Rico. These feelings are once again reflected by the 55% of Americans who believe the Trump administration has not done enough for the Hispanic majority area (“University”). This stands in sharp contrast with the favorable opinion regarding the administration’s handling of Harvey and Irma.
This impression seems fairly justified considering the flippant comments that the President has made regarding the island. He even alluded to removing federal support from the area only a month after the disaster: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” (Trump) This comment was hastily retracted after receiving harsh backlash. As it stands, the current support afforded by the federal personnel on the island seems to be fairly lacking. National Nurses United reported that RNRN/NNU nurses deployed to the island were shocked to find people who have not yet received food, water and other supplies from FEMA. Moreover, many across the island have seen no sign of FEMA or any other federal relief officials at all (“Nurses”). This disparity in care has caused citizens to take matters into their own hands. More than a month after the hurricane hit on Oct. 26th, a group of civilians delivered a generator to a elder-care facility in Isabela, Puerto Rico. The facility has been almost perpetually without electricity and often water since Hurricane Maria. One of the citizens who delivered the generator asserted, “All we have is us, there is no FEMA here” to explain their involvement in the affair (Cunningham). The power situation in Puerto Rico still remains in dire straits, the Washington Examiner reports, “…66 percent of the island’s estimated 3.4 million residents have electricity, according to a government-run website detailing utility coverage.” Considering the progress made thus far the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, estimates that full power will not return to the island until February (Giaritelli).
The reason behind this seemingly lackluster response seems to be a result of bureaucratic red tape and disorganization. FEMA policy dictates that information for disaster registration events, etc. be released to the public through news releases, social media and other means. However, in places like Yobucoa, which hosts a population of 46,000, where there is still no cell service, let alone internet connection, the information is being transferred via word of mouth or not at all. This disorganization is not only being seen in more domestic incidents, but the distribution of aid as a whole, as Mike Write reports: “Around 10,000 shipping containers full of aid [were] reported to have been left languishing at the port of San Juan for days amid red tape, disagreements over how it should be distributed, and a lack of drivers” (Wright).
Discounting the plain disorganization that plagues the hurricane relief effort, the main reason there is such difficulty disrupting supplies is primarily due to the island’s aging infrastructure. This harkens back to Puerto Rico’s much larger problem: its failing economy. Puerto Rico’s economy has always relied heavily on the presence of US companies. Beginning in 1976, the United States government began a program in which large tax breaks were given to companies with operations on the island to encourage investment. The result was department stores, restaurants and other companies flocking to the island, thus, creating jobs and boosting tax revenues. However, these tax breaks officially expired in 2006 and the Puerto Rican economy fell into a recession. The dire economic straits inspired many islanders to move to the mainland United States, resulting in a “brain drain” for the island. The economy has only worsened, culminating in Puerto Rico declaring bankruptcy in May and has since then been trying to restructure more than $70 billion in debt.
In conjunction with the large scale economic problems, PREPA, Puerto Rico’s only electric company, has also not had the monetary capability to modernize the island’s infrastructure. Alexia Campbell reports, “PREPA relied on selling bonds to pay for the imported oil it burned at its power plants. By 2014, it could no longer pay its creditors, and couldn’t borrow more money to buy fuel. The utility company ended up making a deal with its creditors to restructure $5.7 billion of its total $9 billion debt. As part of the agreement, PREPA was supposed to modernize its ancient electric system. But the utility company kept delaying repairs because it didn’t have the money, and the utility company struggled to pay down its remaining debt” (Campbell). Finally, only two months after the government officially declared bankruptcy, PREPA defaulted on a $170 million interest payment to bondholders and declared bankruptcy as well. Not only can PREPA not afford to modernize the electrical system, there is barely enough money to keep the current system running, leaving the Puerto Rican electrical system subject to regular power outages.
Puerto Rico’s economic problems are not a phenomena that have developed in the past few decades but rather a much larger systemic problem. The Jones Act was implemented after WW1 to protect the American ship building industry as a reactionary measure to the multitude of American vessels that had been sunk by German U-boats. Section 27 of the act decreed that only American boat could transport good and passengers from US one port to another. The law has long outlived its original intent, but the effects on Puerto Rico, as well as Hawaii and Alaska’s, economies is astronomical. Any foreign vessel that enters these ports must pay steep tariffs, taxes and other fees, which are then passed onto the consumer. However, foreign vessels do have another option: as Nelson Denis explains, “[The foreign vessels] can reroute to Jacksonville, [Florida], where all the goods will be transferred to an American vessel, then shipped to Puerto Rico where—again—all the rerouting costs are passed through to the consumer” (Denis). The result is that Puerto Rico has to pay as much as double the price for goods compared to other islands, such as the U.S Virgin Islands where the law does not apply. Considering that Puerto Rico’s income per capita is only 18,000–close to half enjoyed by Mississippi, the poorest state in the US—these hiked prices deal a hard blow. Trump did briefly suspend the law for a 10 day period to allow ships carrying aid enter the island’s ports; however, the expediency with which supplies are delivered is irrelevant if there is no organization on the ground.
Although, the mainstream media’s coverage of the disaster in Puerto Rico continues to decline, many still continue to provide relief to the struggling island. As Lin Manuel Miranda, a lead contributor to Puerto Rico’s relief efforts, explained, “I sort of fixated on the phrase “Almost Like Praying” because we always sends thoughts and prayers in the wake of a tragedy, but they’re not enough. Puerto Rico doesn’t just need thoughts and prayers, it needs supplies, and food, and water, and troops” (Miranda).
Cunningham, Paige Winfield. “The Health 202: Trump agrees administration should get ‘A plus’ on Puerto Rico.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 Oct. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/the-health-202/2017/10/16/the-health-202-trump-has-badly-undercut-his-own-administration-on-puerto-rico/59e35a1230fb041a74e75d90/?utm_term=.ecf61c146ce1.
Campbell, Alexia Fernández. “All of Puerto Rico has lost power. It could take months to restore it.” Vox, Vox, 20 Sept. 2017, www.vox.com/2017/9/6/16262954/irma-puerto-rico-electricity.
Denis, Nelson A. “The Jones Act: The Law Strangling Puerto Rico.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/opinion/hurricane-puerto-rico-jones-act.html.
Giaritelli, Anna. “Behind schedule: Puerto Rico won’t have full power back until February.” Washington Examiner, Washington Examiner, 2 Dec. 2017, http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/puerto-rico-wont-have-full-power-back-until-february/article/2642346.
Miranda , Lin Manuel. “Almost Like Praying.” Genius, 6 Oct. 2017, genius.com/12811217.
“Nurse Volunteers in Puerto Rico Call For Escalation of Relief Efforts Amid Dire Conditions.” National Nurses United, 10 Oct. 2017, www.nationalnursesunited.org/press/nurse-volunteers-puerto-rico-call-escalation-relief-efforts-amid-dire-conditions.
Trump, Donald (realDonaldTrump). “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” Oct. 7 2017, 7:07am, Tweet
University, Quinnipiac. “QU Poll Release Detail.” QU Poll, Quinnipiac University, 12 Oct. 2017, poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=2492.
Wright, Mike. “Mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital city wears T-Shirt saying ‘help us, we are dying’ in TV interview following Hurricane Maria devastation.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 30 Sept. 2017, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/30/mayor-puerto-ricos-capital-city-wears-t-shirt-saying-help-us/.