Puerto Rico’s post-Maria recovery marked by inequality

by Melanie Calderon
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

September will mark two years since Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Yet, the island remains in shambles. Temporary tarps distributed by FEMA remain the pseudo-roofs of a substantial number of homes, food stamp funding has almost run dry, and Puerto Rico’s power grid was only fully restored in March. The Caribbean island is far from recovered.

In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico and left a path of mass destruction. Buildings were flooded, homes destroyed, and according to a study done by George Washington University, approximately 2,975 people died as a result. This figure is in sharp contrast to the number of 64 deaths reported by the Puerto Rican government even months after the storm.

Puerto Rico experienced the largest and most prolonged blackout in U.S. history, as Maria destroyed its power grid, undersea power cables, and 80 percent of utility poles. Only in March of 2019 was power fully restored to every part of the island. Blue tarps provided by FEMA for temporary use as roofs still line residential areas. The only hospital on the island of Vieques remains closed and in an increasingly deteriorating condition. Puerto Rico’s version of SNAP, or food stamps, is running short on funding, decreasing payouts from $649 to $410, affecting the 44 percent of Puerto Ricans who rely on the assistance for food.

The U.S. government has done little to help Puerto Rico rebuild. The island has only received $11.2 billion out of the $41 billion in aid allocated for disaster relief. Residents have been denied household assistance funds to rebuild their homes due to provisions in FEMA that prevent “informal” houses without proper deeds from receiving aid, leaving approximately 600,000 applicants without means of restoring their damaged homes, according to an NBC News report. And although Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is moving towards privatization–a move that has made residents wary of rising costs–earmarks in the Stafford Act of 1988 make it impossible for Puerto Rico to modernize its electrical grid or other damaged infrastructure with FEMA disaster relief money.

And further relief does not seem like it is on its way. Congress entered a two-week spring recess without approving a multi-billion-dollar aid package for disaster-hit communities, including Puerto Rico. This came after backlash from President Trump who headed to Twitter to rant that Puerto Ricans “only take from the USA.”

To make recovery matters worse, Puerto Rico is currently in the midst of a 12-year-long recession. Its debt currently stands at $74 billion, causing the government to declare bankruptcy under different bankruptcy laws than those that cover U.S. states. Different federal minimum wage laws also apply to Puerto Rico, averaging 30 to 50 percent lower than wages on the mainland U.S.

The consequences of these impediments are manifested in a University of Michigan study which found that it took twice as long — four months — for Puerto Rico to receive a comparable amount of aid as Texas and Florida after their respective disasters. Without a voting representative in Congress, there are very few avenues of advocacy for expanded help for Puerto Rico, reigniting anger over what many call the colonization of the island since 1898, or 120 years.

Is the neglect of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria part of a more ulterior motive? Author Naomi Klein has developed a theory of “disaster capitalism” — the idea that corporations exploit societies still reeling from disasters in order to profit from their resources or markets.

In the months following Hurricane Maria, privatization became rampant. Puerto Rico’s biggest airport has already been privatized. The University of Puerto Rico’s student housing is on the way to being privatized. Neshma Salazar, a junior at the Cora campus of UPR and former Cornell University student, described how “water had filtered through the apartment’s roof” and there was no electricity or running water in the dorms, forcing students to move out and embark on daily, dangerous commutes to campus. The prospects for renovations of these dorms will now lie in a less accountable corporate company looking for a profit.

Public grade schools have also been led toward privatization — in favor of charter schools and vouchers, leading to layoffs for teachers who do not have tenure — and forcing families with limited means to the mainland U.S., according to a June 2018 feature in the New York Times.

The dwindling island population has is increasingly being replaced by “wealthy transplants” who use Puerto Rico as a tax haven through the previously little-known Act 20 and Act 22. These acts give federal and local tax exemptions to new individuals who spend at least half the year on the island–an incentive that has lured mostly wealthy tech entrepreneurs. In addition, real estate investors have filled in the gaps where the bankrupt government has struggled to recover. “It is not coincidental that one of the first measures passed by the Rosselló administration after Hurricane Maria was to allow unsolicited contracts by private investors”, writes Yarimar Bonilla in The Nation. Even Puerto Rican government officials themselves described Hurricane Maria’s impact as a “restart” for the island. Whether the term “restart” carries negative or positive connotations, however, depends on the person you ask.

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