Puerto Rico and the Stafford Act

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, many Americans discovered the Jones Act, making the connection between an early 20th century law and U.S. territories suffering from natural disasters.

There’s another 20th century law that affects Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria: the Stafford Act.

The Stafford Act, formally named the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, became law in 1988 and was amended in August of 2016.

The act specifically defines Puerto Rico and her fellow territories as part of the United States, on a level with the actual States:

“United States” means the fifty States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
“State” means any State of the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Stafford Act also defines how recovery after a natural disaster should be viewed:

recovery, by rebuilding communities so individuals, businesses, and governments can function on their own, return to normal life, and protect against future hazards.

The law gives the president broad powers to provide funds for disaster response and recovery.

But the Stafford Act also specifies that things should be rebuilt as they were before the disaster, not brought up to date or made able to withstand future disasters.

For Puerto Rico, then, this means that the inadequate power grid existing before Hurricane Maria, which made the electric bills of the people of Puerto Rico higher than those of people living in States and kept electric service chancy in many parts of the territory, should not be brought up to modern standards.

Puerto Rico’s infrastructure made it harder for the Island to compete for business investment before the hurricanes hit. Bringing the electrical system up to modern standards would make a difference in Puerto Rico’s ability to compete for business and to rebuild the economy through entrepreneurship.

Governor Mapp of the Virgin Islands has requested that this provision of the Stafford Act be reconsidered. Like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands had an electrical grid that was vulnerable to natural disaster before the 2017 hurricane season, and hopes to rebuild with a system that will be better able to withstand future disasters.

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