Where is the urgency in Puerto Rico response?

Carlos Giusti/AP Photo

National Guard soldiers arrive at Barrio Obrero in Santurce to distribute water and food among those affected by the passage of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 24. A growing humanitarian crisis has left large portions of the island without fresh water, fuel, electricity, or phone service.

It’s been a week since hurricane Maria walloped Puerto Rico, the strongest storm to make landfall on the island in nearly 90 years. Also historic: the lack of urgency in the federal response to the catastrophe. Thousands of lives are on the line. Puerto Rico needs more resources — and pronto.

While President Trump was talking about NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem at football games, Puerto Ricans were coming to terms with an apocalyptic reality: The entire power grid remains down and is nowhere close to restoration; about 80 percent of the island’s agricultural crop value has been wiped out; and 60 percent of the island has no water. Sixteen people have died. There are severe food and fuel shortages, as well as flooded homes, flattened structures, and debris everywhere. Government officials estimate the hurricane set Puerto Rico back “nearly 20 to 30 years.” Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló foresees a profound long-term humanitarian crisis. Some put the estimated damage to Puerto Rico at $30 billion.


And yet, it wasn’t until Monday, five full days after the storm made landfall, that Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long arrived with other top officials from the Trump administration to evaluate “immediate needs.” Trump, defending his response amid media criticism, now says he will visit Puerto Rico next week. Rosselló has urged Congress to expedite an aid package for the island, but a vote on it is not expected to come up for weeks.

Complicating any potential legislative action is the fact that Puerto Rico, as a US territory, has no official representation in Congress, leaving a huge advocacy void in terms of pushing for aid. So who stands up on behalf of Puerto Rico on Capitol Hill? It’s been up to the congressmen and congresswomen of Puerto Rican origin, such as US Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez of Illinois, US Representative Nydia M. Velázquez of New York, and others. The Massachusetts delegation should join them more actively in demanding resources from the Trump administration.

Gutiérrez and Velázquez have repeatedly asked for two immediate regulatory changes. One is a waiver on the anachronistic Jones Act, which requires that any products transported by water between US ports use ships made in the United States and owned and operated by Americans. A temporary waiver of the Jones Act was issued for hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but the government has confirmed it has no plans of waiving it again for Puerto Rico — an unconscionable lapse of responsibility that could slow down delivery of essential supplies. Additionally, Puerto Rico needs a federal waiver on cost-sharing between FEMA and the US commonwealth. Typically, Puerto Rico would commit 25 percent of the recovery funds, but its dire financial situation demands special treatment.

Puerto Rico, already broke, is now broken. Politics as usual will not do. The island and its people deserve as much attention and resources as mainland sites, like Houston, that have suffered from hurricane devastation.