Puerto Ricans protest at FEMA on six month anniversary of Hurricane Maria

"We’re still going to make sure they’re held accountable."

A protester holds a sign at a rally for Puerto Rico on March 20 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: Melanie Schmitz, ThinkProgress)
A protester holds a sign at a rally for Puerto Rico on March 20 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: Melanie Schmitz, ThinkProgress)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A crowd of energized Puerto Ricans rallied in the U.S. capital on Tuesday, demanding equal treatment from the Trump administration and decrying the island’s ongoing woes on the sixth month anniversary of Hurricane Maria making landfall.

“We are here today for our families in Puerto Rico,” said Julio López-Varona, an organizer with the Center for Popular Democracy. “On the six month anniversary of Hurricane Maria, things are not better.”

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Organized by a number of groups and organizations, the rally sought to capitalize on the anniversary by shining a light on Puerto Rico’s continued struggle to recover from the storm, which all but destroyed the island. Huddled outside the offices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), protesters alternated between chants and cheers as speakers rotated to the microphone. Weather conditions in Washington meant those demonstrating endured a downpour, hail, and whipping winds. Crowded in raincoats and holding umbrellas to fend off the freezing rain, organizers and lawmakers called for action.

“Devastation caused by [the hurricane] is unprecedented,” said one Hispanic Federation speaker. “[The United States] has allowed the island to fall behind in every measure.”  Calling attention to the rally’s location, she pointedly asked, “Where the hell has [FEMA] been?”

One speaker, a Puerto Rican now living in New York, emphasized the dire conditions facing many islanders in the hurricane’s aftermath.

“I am here for my daughter — my daughter has a medical condition — so we had to come after Maria to take care of that. I am alone. I need housing,” she said. “There are thousands of us living this way. [So many of us] are here pleading for support.”

Lawmakers also swung by the rally, offering their support and aiming criticism at the White House and FEMA.

“Kids need to be in school, they need a health care system that works for everyone, and it’s not happening. So we must continue to protest, we must continue to be heard,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who, organizers emphasized, came as an ally, as the senator is not Puerto Rican herself. “We say to FEMA, do not leave until every family has what they need to survive, to thrive.”

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At least one speaker directly pointed to the gloomy weather as an appropriate backdrop. “It is fitting that we are not here comfortably. It is fitting that we are struggling together,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL). “That is symbolic of the struggle still facing millions of our brothers and sisters on the island.”

As the speeches wound down, activists headed off in the rain to march — a cold, damp demonstration marking a somber, ongoing chapter in U.S. history.

When Maria struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm on September 20 last year, the island was completely unprepared. Massively in debt and struggling with an aging power grid, islanders already lacked many of the perks and privileges afforded to mainland U.S. citizens. That reality compounded to make the storm’s resulting devastation far, far worse.

In the immediate aftermath of Maria, Puerto Ricans struggled for months without easy access to water, electricity, or basic health care. A back-and-forth over the archaic Jones Act ate into recovery time while Puerto Ricans watched the island’s economy teeter further into the red. That was far from all: Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents endured disease and shuttered schools as the months dragged on, part of the longest blackout in U.S. history. Forced to choose between recovery and education, many students relocated to the mainland.

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While the island suffered, the White House came under fire repeatedly — first for inaction and later for President Trump’s comments blaming the island for its misfortunes and downplaying the gravity of the tragedy. A heated war of words with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz did the president no favors, something several scandals involving dubious private contracts only exacerbated. But the resulting criticism did little. Before a month had even passed, Trump emphasized that FEMA could not stay in Puerto Rico “forever” — despite every indication that it would take the island years to recover — and lamented the cost of repairing the U.S. territory, a refrain he echoed later on.

FEMA, meanwhile, faced a barrage of questions over food shortages and water access. The agency briefly disappeared a federal website providing data on Puerto Rico’s recovery, only to resurface it after public outcry. That became a familiar theme: in January, FEMA announced it would end food and water aid to Puerto Rico, only to swiftly backtrack once the news sparked backlash.

With fluctuating help from the federal government, Puerto Rico’s road to recovery has been rocky. Efforts to privatize Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (PREPA) met with backlash, even as part of the island was plunged into total darkness last month following an electrical fire. More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans still remain without power — some 7 percent of the island — and tens of thousands still lack clean water.

Activists marching on Tuesday told ThinkProgress that reality is weighing heavily on them.

“I don’t understand how the government thinks that Puerto Rico needs no more help, that everything is ready, that people can do it on their own now,” said Maria Beri, member of New York Communities for Change (NYCC). “Half of the island doesn’t even have electricity. My mother’s home… she just got electricity two days ago.”

Beri criticized FEMA in particular for failing to help many Puerto Ricans as they struggle to recover from Maria.

“It’s alarming the way the government has responded so slowly. Even in my family, people from FEMA have visited, and nobody qualified [for assistance]. There’s always some excuse — they don’t have titles, they don’t have certain paperwork…. It’s a humanitarian crisis,” she said. “All those technicalities should be put aside. They have a need for help right then and there. And they haven’t gotten it so far. That’s why we’re here. We’re still going to make sure they’re held accountable.”

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Many marchers called for sustainable solutions to the island’s problems, which need to be solved quickly as hurricane season approaches. Renato Rocha, a policy analyst at Unidos U.S., addressed the island’s fraying power grid in addition to a “permanent solution” regarding Medicaid funding and financial assistance more generally.

“The infrastructure, the electric grid, it [needs to be] built in a way that’s sustainable. The next hurricane season is only a few months away. So the next time that a hurricane hits, we don’t want this type of damage to happen again,” he said.

Activist Isabelle Lopes told ThinkProgress that, more than anything, Puerto Ricans need the empathy and energy of mainlanders.

“We need people to support us. We’re American citizens like they are. … Today, it’s Puerto Rico. Tomorrow, it could be another state, another city,” she said.

She added, “We only have to remember [Hurricane] Katrina to know what it’s like. They know what we’re going through right now.”

With additional reporting by Melanie Schmitz.