It’s been nearly a month since two historic hurricanes savaged Puerto Rico, and despite the utter devastation left after the storms, the island’s 3.4 million residents are still waiting for substantive relief from the federal government.
Help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been slowed, because of glaring lapses in coordination, a lack of guidance of medical and other personnel, as well as what critics and Puerto Rican officials have said was an almost total breakdown in distribution and supply chains. The result has been a yawning gap between the burgeoning humanitarian disaster and the urgent life-and-death needs of the shell-shocked populace.
Nearly 85 percent of the island is still in darkness, because the storms destroyed the electrical grid. Governor Ricardo Rosselló estimates that it will cost about $5 billion to repair the island’s power grid that was decimated by Hurricane Maria. Cellphone service towers across the island are slowly being restored; there is a critical shortage of food, medicine and other basic supplies; meanwhile, more than half of the commonwealth’s residents are living without potable water.
The official death toll is 48, but there are reports that the medical examiner’s office in San Juan is holding 350 bodies. There are also fears that, as the authorities reach the most remote parts of the island and as water-borne and other diseases take hold, that the death toll will inevitably rise.
Last week, FEMA scrubbed important statistics about the availability of clean drinking water and the paucity of electricity on the island, from its website.
The fierce winds of Hurricanes Irma and Maria left catastrophic damage, tore roofs from buildings, toppled power lines and transformers; stripped trees bare; triggered mudslides and flooding; flattened and demolished trees; and blocked roads. Beleaguered Puerto Ricans can only buy food, supplies and other materials in what is now a mostly cash-only society.
Yet, in the midst of all this need, more than 10,000 shipping containers loaded with food, medicine and other needed supplies have sat idle at the Port of San Juan and elsewhere, because of red tape, bureaucratic bungling and logistical logjams.
Aurora Flores, a New York-based activist, painted a harrowing picture that is slowly emerging as information seeps out of the soaked island.
“Oh, my God! I have such a combination of feelings. This is outrageous,” said Flores, a noted cultural historian and musician. “This is Trump’s Katrina. We’re in a dire situation. There is no electricity; people are waiting in line eight, nine hours for gasoline, food and other needs. Right now, we need the United States Army trucks and drivers. There’s no housing…we need cruise ships to come in.”
Flores continued: “We also need to secure the streets. Armed gangs are roaming. This is horrific. We’ve been shunned, pushed to the side.”
Flores said that she had been in contact with family in Puerto Rico, despite the communications difficulties. She assailed the Trump administration for its slow response and castigated Trump for his constant congratulatory comments to first responders, FEMA, and others in his administration.
“He’s patting himself on the back. [Trump found time] to put down Black athletes over the weekend and not once did he say anything about Puerto Rico,” she said. We’ve been shunned, pushed to side. We don’t need any more excuses. Puerto Rico needs help right now. You don’t do this to other Americans. We need the federal government to come to the rescue. We need compassion and leadership to come together. We’ve fought for and bled for this country. We’re part of America.”
Critics have chided Trump for ignoring the crisis for the first week after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island. He spent more time tweeting to demand that NFL players kneel for the anthem than expressing any compassion or concern for Puerto Rico’s plight. And to add insult to injury, Elaine Duke, acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security crowed at the end of the first week that the federal efforts on the island as a “good news” story.
Trump’s nonchalance has angered Puerto Ricans and a raft of other critics, including singer Marc Anthony and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
“Mr. President, shut the f*** up about the NFL. Do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico. We are American citizens, too,” the singer tweeted on September 25.
During a recent interview on CNN, Yulín Cruz lambasted attempts by the White House to spin the situation in Puerto Rico as a “good news story.”
“When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a ‘good news story.’ When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a ‘good news story,’” she said. “When you have to pull people down from their buildings because — you know, I’m sorry, but that really upsets me and frustrates me.”
Yulín Cruz continued: “This is – damn it, this is not a ‘good news’ story. This is a ‘people-are-dying’ story. This is a ‘life-or-death’ story. This is a ‘there’s-a-truckload-of-stuff-that-cannot-be-taken-to-people’ story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen.”
Trump’s frequent Twitter tirades against Puerto Rico, blaming them for their fiscal problems, his tying the commonwealth’s debt to assistance, his dangling erasure of the island’s $74 billion debt and comments about withdrawing FEMA and military assistance are things he hasn’t said about Florida, Texas or other U.S. mainland states affected by this year’s hurricanes.
Latinx activist and community organizer Rosa Clemente said Puerto Ricans have been given the middle finger by Trump and his administration.
“What’s going on in Puerto Rico is definitely terrifying. People are on the precipice of panic,” said Clemente, during a recent interview. “Right now there are shipping containers stuck on wharfs, because drivers are isolated. Bridges have collapsed, people are trapped…I don’t think Trump would help any people of color. This is who he is. The big issue right now is for Congress to release the aid package.”
Reuters reported that the Republican-controlled House approved $36.5 billion in in emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by recent disasters.
“Senate approval is expected in coming weeks,” according to Reuters. “Trump is expected to sign the latest emergency package,” even though the president also suggested that there would be limits on how much federal aid Puerto Rico would receive.
Clemente, a revolutionary hip-hop journalist and lecturer — who is the first Black Puerto Rican/Afro Latina to run for vice president of the Green Party — made arrangements to travel with a group of friends to Puerto Rico to hear and document stories from survivors on the ground and to continue to sound the alarm of the catastrophe that has befallen the island.
The group included: Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi of DEFEND PR, Kat Lazo of MITU, freelance journalist Rachel Reichard, Sense Hernandez and Mateo Zapata of The Beast Factory, and Yanira Marie Castro, a social media communications strategist; they plan to go back as many times as possible “to tell our truth and our people’s stories.” They solicited and received donations and have so far raised almost $4,000 through GoFundMe.
In an Oct. 11 Facebook Live post, Clemente detailed the devastation.
“What we have now is a total catastrophe — both humanitarian and political. Disaster, crisis, catastrophe, none of these adjectives are describing what we’re seeing,” she said soberly. “People are sick, dying. People are getting infections, babies are sick. The situation in San Juan is bad and in the Western part of the island things are isolated, cut off. This situation is past the critical level. It’s not about getting clothes, food or water. We need generators and chainsaws, SUVs and trucks. We need nurses and doctors.”
Clemente continued: “They’re letting us die here, but everyone in Puerto Rico is doing everything they can to save themselves. They’ve helping each other, saving each other. Anyone not doing all they can to raise hell is complicit. We need to stop sending things. We need to pressure politically. We cannot talk about rebuilding, if this nation is allowed to collapse.”