Once again, we need to remind our federal government that our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico must not be forgotten.
The lack of swift, decisive, and highly visible presidential and congressional action as 3.5 million American children and families suffer the effects of Hurricane Maria is inexcusable. In the past month, three hurricanes have hit different parts of the United States — including Puerto Rico. Within days, the president and other leaders responded in Texas and Florida. However, the president was silent for six days on Puerto Rico — and it was only after pressure from the public that the president responded, announcing yesterday that he would visit the island next week. This delay in response demonstrates that millions of our fellow American citizens are being treated differently. This is wrong.
A quick look at information compiled by UnidosUS from FEMA and media outlets, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC News, and the BBC, shows that the president visited Texas twice within the week following Hurricane Harvey; then asked Congress for $7.8 billion in aid. FEMA, the National Guard, and other federal agencies also deployed a total of 31,000 staff. Additionally, FEMA assigned 28 Urban Search and Rescue Teams from across the nation. This was an appropriate and meaningful response to the fact that more than 200,000 people were without power and almost 43,000 were in shelters. In the case of Hurricane Irma in Florida, more than 13,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen from 22 states were deployed, along with more than 3,100 FEMA staff.
By contrast in Puerto Rico, more than three million people are without power, and while FEMA has been on the ground responding, they have only stationed about 600 personnel in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. However, UnidosUS and FEMA have also been communicating almost daily, providing our knowledge of and helping make connections between local contacts. As the response to Hurricane Maria continues, we will continue to work with FEMA and critical partners to ensure that our communities are served in a timely and equitable manner today, and in the months to come.
While meaningful, the FEMA aid that has reached Puerto Rico is not nearly enough. A bolder response is needed now that we know the magnitude of the damage. Two immediate steps:
In addition to sending more food, water, medical supplies, and equipment like lanterns, flashlights, etc., especially to municipalities with no communication, Puerto Rico should be exempted from the matching fund requirement for FEMA resources.
The Department of Homeland Security should waive the Jones Act for at least one month so that supplies, ships, and aid can be brought into Puerto Rico from any country, without delay or excessive costs, as was done for both Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. (UPDATE: The White House announced Thursday morning that a waiver had been authorized, but did not specify how long the waiver would be in effect.)
The president must direct agencies to do whatever it takes to open up channels of distribution to ensure that American children and families in Puerto Rico can receive necessary supplies and aid. Geographic distance notwithstanding, this devastating and unprecedented disaster must be met with an equally forceful and non-traditional response with all that the United States can bring to bear, such as using Department of Defense personnel and ships to get supplies in if air traffic is limited. The nation’s resources must be mobilized in a coordinated fashion with a defined team leading the efforts and on point to communicate with Puerto Rico’s governor and public officials.
In the absence of a clear commitment from the federal government, we have seen examples of individual efforts to respond to this humanitarian crisis unfolding, with elected officials from New York and Chicago — in addition to media personalities — coordinating planeloads full of supplies to the island. Their ability to move resources to Puerto Rico demonstrates that where there is a will, there is a way. Families and individuals in Puerto Rico — as well as community organizations and businesses — are also demonstrating their responsibility in post-hurricane efforts, clearing debris; sharing food, water, and ice; and working to restore services as quickly as they can.
UnidosUS affiliate One Stop Career Center in San Juan has been at work over the past few days, ready to collaborate with government agencies to get aid to affected families. And UnidosUS affiliates on the mainland, especially in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania are coordinating fundraisers and other responses to support loved ones in Puerto Rico. But individual citizens alone cannot address massive destruction. The president and Congress have a responsibility to step in, show leadership, and act now to ease the suffering of all 3.5 million Americans in Puerto Rico.