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Puerto Rico’s rocky recovery is distracting from its pre-existing struggles, residents say

Puerto Ricans say Hurricane Maria's impact should not be a catch-all for the island's problems.

Kite flying in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Sunday, May 20, 2018. (CREDIT: E.A. Crunden)
Kite flying in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Sunday, May 20, 2018. (CREDIT: E.A. Crunden)

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — On a humid, sunny Sunday afternoon, dozens of Puerto Ricans dashed around the sprawling green hill leading to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the looming 16th century citadel that crowns Old San Juan. Kites dotted the sky, helped along by the wind, which famously provides the area with powerful gusts on a daily basis. The scene offered a picture of recovery and resilience, all smiling families and blue skies.

Only seven minutes away, a very different demonstration played out. A small group of protesters waved signs at the entrance of a street leading to the governor’s mansion, some sporting brightly-colored neon green T-shirts. A large banner with the words “Madres, Padres Y Comunidad En Pie De Lucha Por Nuestra” hung over a barricade blocking the protesters from the street leading to the building.

Underneath the banner, whose words roughly translate to “Mothers, Fathers and Community Standing for Us”, additional slogans called for an end to the closure of a school located in Toa Baja, a municipality located on the northern coast of the island.

“That’s one of the schools they want to close in order to save money,” said one protester, who identified himself as Miguel Rodriguez but did not give his age. “And that’s only one — there are many. There are many schools,” he continued, referencing the nearly 300 public schools the island plans to close.

Protesters in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (CREDIT: E.A. CRUNDEN)
Protesters in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (CREDIT: E.A. CRUNDEN)

Rodriguez told ThinkProgress that he had come to support the wider group protesting the school’s closure, but that mass school closures were far from the only problem facing the island.

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“I come to protest, myself [often, for many years] for different issues,” he said, balking at the idea that Hurricane Maria last year created Puerto Rico’s problems.

“The problems we have, not the hurricane, the hurricane’s not the bigger problem,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the amount of money that we borrowed and now we are not able to pay.”

“It’s not the main reason,” chimed in a fellow protester next to him, before walking away to speak with another demonstrator.

When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico last September, the island was already struggling. Cash-strapped and massively in debt, the U.S. territory has faced budget deficits for years.

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Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico already owed $74 billion in debt, with more than $53 billion outstanding in unfunded pensions. Fifty percent of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line and the island never recovered from the Great Recession the way the mainland did; more than 20 percent of Puerto Rican jobs have dried up since 2007.

Mainland sympathy was always hard to come by. In 2006, Congress did away with tax breaks that helped Puerto Rico, while continuing legislation like the Jones Act. That World War I-era law mandates that only U.S. ships may transport U.S. goods domestically between ports, hurting islands like Puerto Rico in the process. According to a 2012 report, between 1990 and 2010, the Jones Act alone cost Puerto Rico $17 billion. Amid a struggling economy and little relief, more than 10 percent of the island’s population had left over the course of the last decade before Maria even made landfall.

When the Category 4 hurricane hit the island nine months ago, however, the situation deteriorated almost instantaneously. Power and potable water vanished across the island, leaving residents without access to basic necessities. Hospitals struggled to stay open amid what has now become the longest blackout in U.S. history, while islanders grappled with an onslaught of maladies due to unreliable water and exposure. And this is to say nothing of a lack of power necessary for treatments like dialysis.

Protesters in Old San Juan, Sunday, May 20, 2018. On the left is Miguel Rodriguez, who holds his go-to protest sign. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden
Protesters in Old San Juan, Sunday, May 20, 2018. On the left is Miguel Rodriguez, who holds his go-to protest sign. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden

Schools were among the institutions worst hit. Over time, thousands of students departed for the mainland in a desperate bid to continue their studies. Those left behind struggled to make due with unreliable electricity and badly damaged infrastructure.

That story has been true of the island more broadly — while San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest hub, has regained its footing, the rest of the island is still struggling. Even the road from Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport to San Juan offers a staggering number of coastline homes with tarps in place of roofs, a reminder that the island is far from fully recovered.

But the process of rebuilding the island has been fraught. While President Trump proclaimed in the days after Maria hit that the island was “lucky” to have lost so few people to the storm, official death tolls are widely believed to be inaccurate. According to the Puerto Rican government, some 64 people perished as a result of the hurricane — but a number of experts and reviews indicate that number is over 1,000.

Counting the dead is far from the only point of contention. In October, the Washington Post reported that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) had awarded a $300 million contract to a tiny firm based in Whitefish, Montana to restore the island’s power grid. While the contract was soon canceled, the decision to select a firm without the resources or capability to truly aid Puerto Rico sparked outrage.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also come under repeated criticism for its handling of the crisis. In January, when more than 1 million Puerto Ricans were still without power, the agency appeared set to end food and water relief for islanders, before backtracking on that decision amid outcry.

A month later, the New York Times reported that FEMA had awarded an Atlanta businesswoman without a background in disaster relief a $156 million contract to provide 30 million meals to islanders. Tiffany Brown, who has a history of at least five canceled government contracts, only delivered 50,000 of the meals before FEMA eventually terminated her contract.

Such missteps have come to dominate the island’s halting recovery process, frustrating locals, many of whom have expressed frustration with the national media’s focus on the hurricane as a catch-all for Puerto Rico’s problems.

Making matters worse is the conclusion of mainland assistance. While the Army Corps of Engineers is set to keep 700 generators on the island, the agency officially concluded its restoration efforts on Friday despite pleas from residents.

“It’s not in our culture to walk away from a mission when it hasn’t been fully accomplished, but we follow orders,” Corps director for contingency operations Charles Alexander told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in early May.

FEMA’s future on the island is also unclear. Puerto Rico’s representative to Congress, Jenniffer González Colón (PNP), lobbied the agency to extend a contract focusing specifically on repairing the island’s primary power grid. But FEMA denied that request on Thursday, opting to also end operations on Friday despite an estimated 16,000 homes still without power.

The agency simultaneously approved a request from Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (PNP) to maintain hundreds of generators, the main power source for many of those whose electricity has been restored. PREPA will now take over FEMA’s prior work on the island’s grid.

The island’s ongoing state of limbo is frustrating residents. On Sunday, protesters like Rodriguez indicated that they would prefer to address the island’s preexisting (and now exacerbated) problems rather than the ongoing back-and-forth inherent in the island’s relief process.

But that opportunity may not come any time soon. Mainland restoration efforts on the island have come to a close just two weeks before the Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1. It’s a grim milestone — one that could further complicate efforts for Puerto Ricans who want to solve the island’s enduring struggles, rather than grapple with new hurdles.