When I call to check in on my family in Puerto Rico, my mom, as she always does, assures me that they are OK: “Estamos bien”. But being OK means her last grocery run had to be thrown out after days without power. The grocery store in her neighborhood was forced to close temporarily because of a diesel shortage, and she’s bathing with a bucket during a heat wave. When I ask if she needs anything, she says, “Esperanza” — hope.
Why is it that five years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was so unprepared for Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 storm? Why did a newly privatized grid collapse after just a few hours of rain? Why did newly built bridges so easily float away? Why are so many people still without power? And why has my mom lost hope that things will improve anytime soon?
Part of the problem is that the speed of emergency management has not adapted to climate change. It used to be that the scope of a natural catastrophe would not be surpassed for decades, but record-breaking storms have become all too frequent, and recovery efforts can’t keep up.
Emergency management efforts often focus on immediate response, providing temporary shelter and other needs, without a longer-term strategy. In the wake of Maria, thousands of people were relocated out of Puerto Rico and dropped in motels or on relatives’ sofas, with no plan for how to rebuild their homes or bring them back. The same happened after Hurricane Katrina, as thousands fled, never to return.
After Maria, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sank more than $1 billion into a doomed program called Tu Hogar Renace, or Your Home Reborn, which was meant to provide essential repairs to affected residences in Puerto Rico, reducing the demand for other shelter options. The program focused on basic repairs like fixing broken windows and doors but didn’t prepare structures to withstand future storms. Worse, it was gamed by contractors who charged exorbitant prices for shoddy subcontracted work.
Public works have been similarly challenged. The most visible example is a temporary bridge, built by FEMA contractors in Ohio and placed in the town of Utuado in 2018, at a cost of nearly $3 million. It was supposed to last 75 years, but last month, Fiona’s surging floodwaters washed it down the river. The irony is that the bridge Maria had destroyed was also a temporary one built after Hurricane Georges in 1998.
Puerto Ricans deserve more than Band-Aids that will be ripped away by the next disaster. We also need and deserve a faster recovery. It is unjustifiable and untenable that after a storm, residents are expected to spend weeks without electricity and years living under blue tarps. In the early months of the Covid pandemic, cash payments were released by the federal government with little bureaucratic friction because there was a clear sense of urgency. The same urgency needs to be brought to attending to a natural disaster.
Last week, President Biden said that people in Puerto Rico would be able to register to get $700 “to help cover the essentials”, but the application is not straightforward, and many fear being denied.
It has been widely documented that the already slow bureaucracy of federal assistance was delayed after Hurricane Maria, but it is important to note that applicants were also overly scrutinized. A recently released report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights showed that FEMA placed unnecessary requirements on Puerto Rico residents. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, hundreds of thousands of families that applied for federal assistance were denied, most often because they were unable to prove ownership of their homes — even though homeownership is not a requirement for aid and various forms of documentation could have been accepted.
In the end, just 40 percent of households that applied for FEMA assistance after Maria received any support, and only a little over 1 percent received the maximum payout. This does not account for the thousands who were unable to apply for aid at all because they were unable to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth.
FEMA also followed unique procedures in Puerto Rico that are not used in the 50 states, purportedly to facilitate recovery and build back better. These procedures ended up being unduly bureaucratic and financially onerous for local governments, leading to delays in the construction of lifesaving infrastructure, like a much-needed hospital for the island municipality of Vieques, where there is currently no direct access to emergency care.
Similarly, the Jones Act delayed the arrival of emergency supplies like diesel and inflated their costs at a time of critical need. It took a week for the Biden administration to approve a temporary waiver after Fiona, but by then many businesses, like my mom’s grocery store, had begun to shutter because they were unable to power their generators.
Some believe that demanding equal treatment for Puerto Rico in the wake of disasters is the key to solving its current problems, but equality is not the same as justice. And in any case, we know that even within the 50 states, disaster aid is not exempt from structural inequality.
Mr. Biden held a news conference in the town of Ponce last week, surrounded by electrical cables, presumably staged to signal his commitment to rebuilding and modernizing the electrical grid in Puerto Rico. Yet many are beginning to wonder if his promises are little more than political theater. Five days after his visit, residents took to the streets to protest ongoing power outages and lack of running water.
The residents I have spoken to say they have yet to see crews from LUMA Energy, the island’s privatized power company working in the area. Instead, the company filed legal action against local mayors working to restore power in their municipalities.
As was the case after Hurricane Maria, community leaders have stepped in to fill the gaps left by the government. Local aid organizations replaced FEMA-distributed blue tarps with roofs and bought and installed solar microgrids, fostering the hope that people like my mom so urgently need.
But broader changes must come soon. Puerto Ricans are done with resilience. We are tired of celebrating our ability to endure, of being creative in the face of adversity and of surviving despite state neglect. After Maria, we rallied together in a spirit of collective recovery, but we can no longer carry the weight. The storms will keep coming, and we can’t be expected to pick ourselves back up on our own again and again. We need our government infrastructure to be as resilient as we are forced to be.
Yarimar Bonilla is the director of Centro, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a co-editor of Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm.