Puerto Ricans are living with buckets placed in rooms that have water leaking in every time it rains, which on a tropical isle is very frequent. The constant damp creates mold and spores, and the already high rates of asthma on the island increased after Maria.
I’m focusing on just one of the major problems on the island—not having a solid roof—because it may be easier to get people to empathize and visualize what their own lives would be like if they had to live with the drip-drip-drip of leaks. The blue tarps are also visible in aerial photos, and it’s not like these conditions haven’t been reported—though the mainstream media, for the most part, has dropped the ball on Puerto Rico coverage with only a few exceptions. Danica Coto, an Associate Press correspondent based in Puerto Rico, is a journalist everyone should follow.
This report is from July.
Maria hit more than 786,000 homes on Sept. 20, 2017, causing minor damage to some homes and sweeping others from their foundations. A federally funded program administered by local officials carried out relatively small repairs to some 108,000 homes the next year, while churches and nonprofits patched up thousands with private funds.
A Puerto Rican government program known as R3 is the first major effort by the U.S. territory to carry out major repairs and rebuilding of damaged and destroyed housing. Nearly 27,000 homeowners have applied. But nearly 1 1/2 years after federal funding was released to local officials, not a single repair or rebuilding job has been completed.
“They talk about billions of dollars, but we’re not seeing it,” said Sergio Torres, mayor of the northern mountain town of Corozal. His municipality still has 60 homes with blue tarps as roofs and two families still living in school shelters. ”Ït’s a way of life here.”
The issue of the rebuilt housing failure has been raised in Congress. The most tenacious congressional voice for Puerto Rico has been Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Democrat from New York.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency faced tough questions Friday by lawmakers who said Vieques still doesn’t have a functioning hospital while thousands of other Puerto Ricans continue to wait for their homes to be rebuilt almost three years after Hurricane Maria. Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., questioned FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor on both matters as the agency prepares for a hectic hurricane season amid the coronavirus pandemic. “Puerto Rico has a surge in infections that is one of the highest, if not the highest, on the mainland,” Velázquez said during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing. “But my question is why is it that thousands of families in Puerto Rico still do not have a home, especially during this hurricane season?”
Gaynor responded by saying that while “there’s no easy answers,” FEMA’s commitment to Puerto Rico is demonstrated by the more than 2,000 federal employees the agency has on the island. He also added that Puerto Rico’s recovery is reliant on “a partnership between FEMA, who does temporary work to keep people in their homes” and the Department of Housing and Urban Development “to do permanent work on houses,” as well as cooperation from the local government in Puerto Rico “I think the partnership with Puerto Rico, the governor and her staff has never been stronger,” he said.
Clearly that strong partnership hasn’t put roofs on houses. We’ve watched FEMA pass the buck to HUD, and finger-point and place the blame for failures on island agencies and the Puerto Rican government. There is plenty of valid criticism to go around. That criticism doesn’t, however, put one roof on a home. If we had a commander in chief who gave a damn, this could have all been fixed years ago.
The day before Maria hit, this was what Trump was concerned about:
We’ve also learned that Trump wanted to sell Puerto Rico—or swap it for Greenland.
Believe Miles Taylor or don’t, but the ragged blue tarp roofs and unrepaired homes on the island serve as ragged witnesses to this administration’s callous neglect of Puerto Rico.
With the election only weeks away, Trump is once again attempting to use Puerto Rico—this time by announcing a huge aid package for the very same island whose people he has denigrated.
Sounds good doesn’t it? Take a closer look at the math. If $49 billion was already authorized by Congress, and only $16 billion has been disbursed, that means that $33 billion has never left Washington, D.C.
How can we believe that this latest Hail Mary from Trump, who has his eye on influencing the key votes of mainland Puerto Ricans—especially in Florida—will be any different than what has gone before?
In the wake of Trump’s announcement, as expected, Puerto Rican Republicans, like the non-voting Puerto Rican Congressional Rep. Jenniffer González, are gushing, stating: “We have worked to ensure that Puerto Rico is allocated even more funds necessary for our reconstruction.” However, other folks are raising eyebrows and calling it out for the public relations ploy it clearly is.
“Breaking. Trump suddenly wants to fix the power grid in Puerto Rico because someone told him that all the Puerto Ricans who decamped to Florida can vote there.”
“Oh great! More money they can give away through bogus contacts to mainland friends, or simply not allocate through insane restrictions and oversight.”
“What?! How much conditionality is attached to these billions of dollars? Is it going to be the slow drip of the HUD CDBG funds? And why not remove his veto threat on the earthquake supplemental that passed the house? We can see straight through him.”
“Let us know when the check clears.”
So as wildfires continue to burn in the West and COVID-19 death tolls rise, let us not forget the first major indicator of Trump’s capacity for cruelty and indifference to citizens he is supposed to be serving. His treatment of Puerto Rico after Maria, like the canary in a coal mine, should have showed us all that he doesn’t give a damn about the American people, and who he considers to be “American” is debatable. It ain’t Puerto Ricans and it ain’t Democrats.
A moment of silence was held today in remembrance of all Puerto Rico has lost.
We on the mainland can be silent no more. We have to raise our voices loud, demand justice, and break through the terrible neglect and indifference of Donald Trump and his Republican cabal if we want to begin to reverse three years of wanton disregard for the island.
There is only one solution: Vote Trump and his fellow criminals out of office. Once that’s accomplished, we can begin the process of repair, and assist Puerto Rico in doing some much needed political house cleaning as well.
Hurricane season in the Caribbean ends Nov. 30. Here’s hoping an electoral hurricane takes place on Nov. 3—one that blows the crooks and creeps out of office.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have laid out a plan that is an excellent start for beginning to redress multiple issues that have plagued Puerto Rico for many decades. The Biden-Harris Plan For Recovery, Renewal and Respect for Puerto Rico is a good beginning—on paper. Yet it will be of no more use to Puerto Rico than those paper towels lobbed at islanders by Trump if we don’t get them elected and give them a Congress that can actually get bills passed. Their election will also ensure that the funds already allocated to Puerto Rico actually get there, and that agency chiefs are appointed who give a damn about the island.
So if you want to really help Puerto Rico, let our votes become a blue tidal wave that will sweep away those blue tarps, and help Puerto Rico build a solid future.