One year ago, Hurricane Maria plowed a path of destruction across Puerto Rico. We know the results: 3,000 dead, millions without power — many of them for months — and billions of dollars in damage. Drive through the cities of Caguas and Ponce, or venture into San Juan’s once-bustling hotel district today, and it’s immediately evident that Puerto Ricans are dealing with a “new normal” of frequent power outages, blue tarps, and painfully slow recovery.
The situation would test the resiliency of any American. It is what happens when needs are neglected, when decades of problems are allowed to fester, and when leaders are more interested in self-congratulation than in living up to their commitment to their citizens.
But there is another story worth highlighting. One week after Maria, as Puerto Ricans struggled to deal with unimaginable devastation, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico — a statewide effort housed at the Boston Foundation to raise $1 million for relief, recovery, and relocation needs of thousands of Puerto Ricans.
Three days later, we had the $1 million. Three days after that, we had $2 million.
Because thousands stepped up with gifts large and small, Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico has now raised nearly $4 million from business, foundations, and individuals to meet short-term needs and make long-term investments. To date, more than half that money has been granted out, the result of a thoughtful Puerto Rican-led process to find and assist grass-roots organizations across Puerto Rico who are creating more resilient infrastructure, supporting and rebuilding businesses, and helping residents there and Puerto Ricans displaced to Massachusetts rebuild their lives and keep their families together. Nearly $2 million more in grants will go out in the coming months.
In San Juan, a small grant from Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico has created a network of women entrepreneurs who are starting and rebuilding small businesses. On Culebra and Vieques, grants are helping reestablish the tourism industry and provide jobs and livelihoods to residents. In the central hills, donations are paying for storm-resistant solar arrays for electricity and providing job training to young Puerto Ricans to install and manage them.
And here in Massachusetts, donations have helped agencies meet the needs of those displaced from the island for food, housing, and education for their children. Grants have helped create safe, supportive spaces in Boston and Chelsea, Springfield and Holyoke, for thousands of people in a time of need. Throughout the past year, the nimble, creative responsiveness of nonprofit groups in Puerto Rico stands in stark contrast to the governmental response, and has helped avert an even greater humanitarian disaster.
Still, one year after Maria, there is much more to do. We must provide continued support for people here in Massachusetts and needed capital to jumpstart a more resilient Puerto Rico. A report released this week included interviews with 20 nonprofits working on the ground in Puerto Rico. The nonprofits were asked how long it would take for their part of the job to be done. The answers ranged from two years, to 10 years, to “I don’t know.”
The philanthropic effort can and will continue, but philanthropy is just one tool at a time like this. The estimated $62 million raised for Puerto Rico after Maria is a drop in the bucket when damage estimates hover around $70-$90 billion. Make no mistake — where that drop of philanthropy touches, it nourishes a community. But generosity alone cannot fix the challenges facing our fellow Americans here and on Puerto Rico. To drive long-term change will require us to use a different tool — our voices.
We must raise our voices to encourage business investment. We must raise our voices to demand government investment in resilient infrastructure development. We must raise our voices to help bolster the Puerto Rican economy. If we do so, we can create a Puerto Rico that recovers from Maria in a better position to withstand the inevitable storms to come.
One year after Maria, it’s tempting for some leaders to grade our response and move on. And certainly, from the Merrimack Valley to the Carolinas, there are new needs to be met.
But the truth is that the only applicable grade for our post-Maria efforts as of now is incomplete. We must work together to finish the job.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, Juan Carlos Morales, and Aixa Beauchamp are co-chairs of Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico.