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Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Recovery Slowed by “Subordinate” Position as U.S. Territory

A new report on Puerto Rico’s recovery a year after Hurricane Maria says that “it is obvious that Puerto Rico’s subordinate, some would say colonial, political status has been an obstacle to the recovery process.”

The report, authored by Sergio M. Marxuach of the Center for a New Economy, identifies specific aspects of Puerto Rico’s status that have contributed to the slow progress toward repair and recovery across the island.

First, Congress is legally allowed to do what it likes with Puerto Rico. There are no requirements to treat Puerto Rico as States are treated, to follow the rules and regulations developed for States, or to  provide equal funding in Puerto Rico as in the States. Because of this, Marxuach suggests, “some federal officials, due to indifference, ignorance, or perhaps outright bigotry, may not have acted with the diligence required.” Many Americans were not aware before Hurricane Maria that people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, and much early social media discussion and news coverage implied that U.S. disaster relief for Puerto Rico was an act of charity. It is possible that the federal response to Puerto Rico was in fact unequal to the response to Texas and Florida.

Second, Puerto Rico has no voting members in Congress. Jenniffer Gonzalez, the single representative of Puerto Rico in the House, was very proactive about disaster relief and the needs of Puerto Rico. That is not the same as having two senators and a handful of voting Members of Congress in your corner.The Governor of Puerto Rico stayed in close communication with President Trump, but the president was often distracted by interactions with the Mayor of San Juan, a situation that has not occurred with States.

Marxuach also suggests that the existence of the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) complicated matters. The Board can oversee contracts and decide where resources should be allocated, adding more steps to the process of getting funds from federal coffers to the people who do the work of recovery.

Somewhere between $33 and $45 billion in disaster relief funding has been allocated to Puerto Rico. Far less has actually been spent. In addition, only 10% of the contracts so far awarded have been given to local organizations. The jobs and other local expenditures of disaster relief funds are supposed to help jump start the shattered economy of a place that has had a natural disaster. That may not be happening in Puerto Rico.

In addition to the financial challenges and the difficulty of recovering from such a major national disaster in the middle of a decades-long financial crisis, Marxuach identifies some other elements of the recovery that are challenging for Puerto Rico. People who were without water and electricity for months are still feeling nervous and powerless now that services have been restored. People are inclined to wish for things to be the way they were, and may not be receptive to a “blank slate” approach. And people in Puerto Rico are in many cases still grieving for communities lost and families broken apart.

Marxuach says that it is essential to acknowledge and appreciate the amount of hard work that has been put into the monumental effort of recovering from Hurricane Maria. At the same time, he concludes the report with concern that the “most important unfinished business is the reconstruction of those social, family, and community ties broken by Hurricane Maria.”

Read the full report.


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