Hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico: U.S. aid is slow and insufficient

Oct. 2017 Trump paper towels

Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd in Puerto Rico on Oct. 3. After calling Puerto Ricans “ingrates” a week earlier, Trump paid a brief visit to a high-income area of San Juan, where he declared  that Puerto Rico had not suffered a “real” disaster, like happened under Katrina.

Soon after hurricane Irma devastated islands in the Caribbean and parts of Florida, Socialist Action reporter Ernie Gotta interviewed Omar Pérez Figueroa about the effects of the storm on Puerto Rico. Gotta followed up with Perez after hurricane Maria decimated the island. Pérez, a native of Puerto Rico, is a member of the Juventud Hostosiana, the youth group of the Hostosian National Independence Movement. He is an investigative analyst on climate and water quality and a doctoral student at the University of California Irvine School of Social Ecology.

Socialist Action: Can you discuss the situation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria?

Oliver Pérez: The situation is chaotic right now, there is no electricity, only 25% of people have water, and approximately 88% of the cellular towers are out of power. People are dying in the hospitals, treatment such as dialysis and oxygen therapy need electricity to be provided, and the gas that is used to run the power generator is scarce. The government is saying that they have supplies, but somehow people are not receiving them. As a result, people are camping, making long lines just to get some gas.

Another issue that has gone unnoticed is the mixture between stagnant water from the floods and sewage water. In a normal rain event, manhole lids burst because of the water pressure. Now imagine how many manholes blew with the hurricane! This water mix poses a health risk to everyone that comes in contact with it; sewage water contains high levels of pathogens. Because roads are either blocked or flooded, people do not have another option than to get in contact with this polluted water.

Also, there are areas in the interior of the island where aid has not arrived. We have people writing “S.O.S.” on their roofs, hoping that someone will send aid. There are people who lost everything, unlike high-income people from Guaynabo, where President Trump visited during his trip to the island. This media circus portrayed Puerto Ricans as if they were doing just fine, rather than showing a humanitarian crisis.

SA: Can you talk about the U.S. relief response?

OP: FEMA is responding at snail’s pace. My sister told me yesterday that on the way to visit my grandmother’s house she saw houses without roofs and people sleeping out in the open. The process to obtain aid from FEMA has been exhausting. It is very complicated; you need the internet to complete the formularies. The people that I know that have been able to fill the application had done it through the phone. How come the fastest way to apply for aid is via internet and phone, when most of the island is without power and cell phone signal? Supposedly, FEMA sent people on foot to complete these forms, but they are nowhere to be found.

The U.S government has had an Army colonel named Jeffrey Hughes to oversee the aid operations in the island. This has been seen by many people as a new military occupation of the island. Yes, we need aid, we need tools and structures that can allow us to bounce back from this crisis, but we don’t need to keep perpetuating the same political system that has made us dependent on U.S. aid.

Furthermore, last week (Oct. 3) President Trump visited Puerto Rico to see first hand the consequences of Hurricane Maria. Rather than being supportive or expressing his concern for Puerto Ricans’ wellbeing, he stated that Puerto Ricans have thrown the U.S. budget “out of whack.” He went on to say that Puerto Ricans and Governor Ricardo Rosselló should be proud because only 17 people have perished in this event, which compared to Hurricane Katrina, in which the dead count went into the thousands, was “good.”

He mentioned how they have finally arrived to help us, as if Puerto Ricans have not done anything to pull themselves from this crisis. That visit showed a lack of respect and understanding of the Puerto Rico situation. Losing 17 lives is more than enough.

SA: There was fear on Sunday (Oct. 1) that the Guajataca Dam could burst open. What’s the dam’s status now, and how would that impact those living near by? How has U.S. economic extraction of wealth from the island affected infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the ability to rebound from natural disasters?

OP: We are facing a major issue with the Guajataca Dam. It broke on one side, and it seems it can flood the area if completely broken. This dam provides water to many towns in the western part of the island. If it breaks, this would mean that 11 billion gallons of water would be unleashed onto the communities nearby.

Puerto Rico has a serious problem with its water infrastructure, which is very old, and in some areas, it should have been repaired long time ago. Most of this infrastructure could have been repaired or even rebuilt, but the PROMESA law has limited the funds that can be invested in this efforts. As a result, most of Puerto Rico’s budget has being allocated to pay its debt, leaving essential services such as education, health and infrastructure adrift.

SA: What role does climate change have on the powerful storms generated in the Atlantic?

OP: Scientific data from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) suggests that climate change is increasing ocean temperatures. This change in temperature increases hurricane strength.

Nevertheless, the Puerto Rican government and society have yet to recognize this relationship. It was not until 2016, and with the help of the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council (PRCCC), that the Puerto Rico Senate tried to pass a bill to establish Puerto Rico’s public policy towards climate change. The bill was never passed. It was defeated in part thanks to the politicians’ lack of recognition of climate change.

Most of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure is along the coast, which makes the topic of climate change very relevant. This infrastructure includes airports, hospitals, universities, water treatment plants, and power plants. It is a scientific concern that from the list previously mentioned only a few government entities have plans to address climate change impacts (the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources of Puerto Rico).

SA: Over a million Puerto Ricans (70% of the population) were left without power by hurricane Irma, and over 150,000 lacked potable water. Maria knocked out the power grid completely. Can you discuss how the exploitation of Puerto Rico by U.S. capital has made the island more vulnerable to natural disasters?

OP: The perfect example for this is the cabotage law. Under the Jones Act of 1920, the United States government determined that the only merchant marine that Puerto Rico could use to receive or send merchandise abroad was that of the U.S. This has a direct impact in our economy, because the U.S merchant marine is one of the most expensive in the world.

This is also an issue of concern because if for any reason the port of Jacksonville, Fla.—which is the port we receive our merchandise from—were to close, the island would be at a standstill. Puerto Rico imports 90% of its products (food, clothing, cars, among others) from there. In early September, the Jacksonville port was closed because of Hurricane Irma. And so, Puerto Ricans were freaking out.

Finally, the U.S. Congress had to issue a standstill on the cabotage law, so Puerto Rico could function. In the final analysis, however, we are at the mercy of the U.S. government when it comes to the cabotage law. They will enforce it when they deem it more convenient.

SA: Cuba faced a direct hit by Hurricane Irma. Yet Cuba is largely seen as being able to bounce back quickly from such disasters compared to its neighbors in the Caribbean and in the U.S. What can we learn from the way Cuba deals with hurricanes?

OP: I think a very distinctive trait of the Cubans is their solidarity. Their education system is built so kids at an early age start thinking as collective. This is very different from the U.S education model, which focuses on the individual. If we extrapolate the previous argument, in the occurring of a hurricane we have the Cuban society working together towards the same goal, the country’s recovery. But on the contrary, in other regions where solidarity is not a stronghold, you have speculators trying to get richer at the expense of others’ suffering.

Another aspect we can learn from the Cubans is their recognition of their geographical location. They are very aware that because of their location they are very likely to get hurricanes and they are prepared for them, they have plans of mitigation, climate change impact, etc. We do not have to reinvent the wheel, we must be prepared and implement the plans that we have. Moreover, we have to take up the challenge to convince politicians and society that we are not currently prepared, and we need to be, because hurricanes will keep occurring.

SA: What role do you see the people of Puerto Rico playing in the struggle for a sustainable earth?

OP: We need to be like the salmon, we need to keep on pushing, push the climate change agenda, because climate change and its consequences are real. As a friend of mine in the U.S. said once, “The sea level rise does not care if you are a Republican or Democrat.” There is strong wisdom in his words; you can argue all you want whether climate change is real or not, but you cannot dispute the catastrophic consequences.

No change is a small change; we all have an impact. Because Puerto Rico is an island, we are feeling the climate change impacts more quickly. This is already triggering communities to be prepared, because they know the government will do little to help them. Without knowing it, these communities are developing management plans and driving climate change acknowledgement, which I know we all can learn from.

SA: How would a Puerto Rico independent of U.S. rule organize to withstand natural disasters? Does the current situation point out the necessity of independence?

OP: Let’s start by saying that the term “natural disaster” has been misused for decades. Yes, there are disasters, but that does not make them natural. The magnitude of a disaster depends greatly on people’s capacity to respond. If a country does not have the institutions or the sovereignty to respond quickly or according to what is needed, it means it is not resilient.

Hurricane Maria’s consequences in the island are not natural; on the contrary, they are the result of decades of an imposed political regime. This regime has hindered our resilience and our economic growth. One example is the Jones Act, which prohibits Puerto Rico to import or export any product that is not on a U.S. ship.

Today, more than ever, we need our independence; we need to have the power to decide our future. We cannot have thousands of pounds of so many needed supplies, waiting for the U.S government to decide when it is time to enter Puerto Rico.

Also, we need to foster our own economy. This political system has us subjugated; we import up to 90% of our products. We have big seed companies like Monsanto and Pioneer using our most fertile lands to plant their products and export their revenue. We need our independence to stop it, to have control over our soil.

Finally, we need the power to compete in the global markets as equals. Currently, we cannot protect our products to be sold at better prices and in better conditions. More than ever we need our independence. Viva Puerto Rico libre!