Commentary: Emergency aid still hasn’t reached all of Puerto Rico
By Gene Kemmeter
Nearly a year ago, in September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States about 1,000 miles south of Miami, Fla. The category 5 storm caused an estimated $90 billion damage and up to 4,500 deaths in the following weeks.
Emergency response to the tragedy was slow, and continues to be, nearly a year later. Electrical power was disrupted, and some areas of the island are still without it. Roads and water utilities were destroyed and still aren’t functioning. Buildings were ripped apart, and thousands of roofs were ripped off, with blue tarps signaling those awaiting repairs or replacement.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) acknowledged recently it was not prepared for a storm like Maria, causing slow and delayed response. And the agency has rejected about 60 percent of the assistance claims it received in the territory.
Puerto Rico is not a wealthy island. In fact, if it became a state, it would supplant Mississippi as the poorest state in the nation. The territory has a high cost of living, and six in 10 people receive some form of public assistance. The median household income is estimated at $19,350, with a 45-percent poverty rate and 12.4 percent unemployment rate.
Because of its territorial status, Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States by law and may move freely between the island and the mainland. As a result of the hurricane, hundreds of thousands fled the island, including workers seeking to earn money for their families.
Families left, and schools reported their facilities were operating at 60 percent of capacity after the hurricane, with some facilities converted into community centers and shelters to accommodate the needs of those displaced by the damage.
The hurricane came on the heels of Hurricane Harvey that struck the Houston, Texas, area a month before and Hurricane Irma hit the Miami, Fla., area two weeks before. While Texas and Florida are on the mainland, Puerto Rico is an isolated island and all areas were damaged, limiting access of emergency responders. Yet an aircraft carrier was dispatched off the coast of Florida two days before Irma hit, and none was sent to Puerto Rico. A hospital ship was finally sent to Puerto Rico nine days after Maria hit.
The lack of response to Puerto Rico by the U.S. government was even addressed by international aid groups who usually don’t respond to emergencies in the world’s wealthier nations. But they stepped in to aid Puerto Rico, calling the government’s response slow and inadequate.
Emergency situations require the government to step in and help out. Wisconsin’s disasters are small in terms of assistance required when compared to the widespread impacts from hurricanes, floods and wildfires.
A major part of that assistance comes in the terms of logistics, how to get the aid to the necessary locations and then distribute it to those who need it. The government still isn’t doing that in Puerto Rico nearly a year later.