Nine months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, leaving a path of death and devastation, 4,800 American households on the island still lack electricity. Up until three months ago, the number stood at 120,000.
If a natural disaster struck, say, Wisconsin or New Hampshire, it’s impossible to imagine such numbers lasting past nine days.
Puerto Ricans’ status as second-class citizens has become painfully evident in Maria’s aftermath. The inadequate response to the disaster has raised questions for the Trump administration, federal agencies, and the island’s own government, and Americans deserve answers. That’s why a group of four Democrats in Congress, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, introduced legislation last week to establish a “9/11-style” independent, bipartisan panel to examine the Trump administration’s preparedness and response in Puerto Rico.
It’s an important proposal and should be enacted.
The legislation would ask the panel to investigate, among other factors: the accuracy of the federal government’s method to count deaths; the feds’ capacity to mobilize and respond fast to disasters on the island; and any disparities in the government’s response to Puerto Rico compared with the other major mainland disasters last year, Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida.
Questions started within days of the storm, and have only grown since. Just after the hurricane, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz criticized the feds’ lack of urgency in tending to these Americans’ needs. Meanwhile, President Trump was claiming his administration’s response in Puerto Rico was the best — the greatest — and boasted about the “amazing job” done by emergency responders.
Then controversies arose over government contracts awarded for aid on the island — for meals, to rebuild homes, and to repair the island’s electrical infrastructure. Some were no-bid contracts, others were inappropriately awarded. All in all, there’s plenty for a special commission to scrutinize.
There’s also a human element. Americans in Puerto Rico deserve to voice their experiences and weigh in officially on the federal response through public meetings and hearings the commission would hold. Maria was an immense tragedy, whose scale is only coming into full focus now, as the death count is revised drastically upward. Many American citizens died waiting for medical attention.
Looking backward shouldn’t be the only function. A commission could also help analyze the lessons learned in order to prepare for future disasters, and assess what aid is needed now for an island that is still on its heels.
The damage toll from Maria in Puerto Rico reached $94 billion, but Congress’s federal aid package only covers about a third of that, at $32 billion. The government has disbursed just 10 percent of that money. And Puerto Rico still owes more than $70 billion and had filed for bankruptcy early last year.
In Maria’s wake, more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland, decimating the island’s tax base; by next year, experts estimate that the number can reach almost a half-million. As a result of the exodus, nearly 300 schools — a quarter of the island’s total — are permanently closing and displacing hundreds of thousands of children. The power grid, which was already very fragile when Maria hit, remains weak and vulnerable. Even a tropical storm, let alone the next hurricane, could inflict serious damage.
As a new hurricane season begins, a full accounting of the lost lives, widespread damage, and lack of response in Puerto Rico needs to be told, and the commission would help tell it. A tragedy on the scale of Hurricane Maria demands no less.