The first time I ever visited Puerto Rico wasn’t for vacation. It was for work. I arrived in January 2018 to report on the damage Hurricanes Irma and Maria left behind. Street lights were dead, hanging uselessly. Palm trees were toppled on the ground. Former homes were reduced to unidentifiable open-faced structures of broken brick.
There, I met Myrna Conty, a fierce environmental advocate who’s a coordinator with the Coalition of Organizations Against Incineration and president of Amigos of Rio Guaynabo in Puerto Rico. During that visit, she introduced me to others who shared their stories of survival. I gave her a call a few weeks ago to check in on how the island is doing now.
“It’s really a disgrace that we’re still here three years later, and there’s still people living with rooftop tarps,” she told me. “Here we are every single year, Yessenia. We’re exposed to getting hit by hurricanes every single year. It’s not just this year or three years later. It’s every single year.”
Recovery is still underway in Puerto Rico. Hurricane recovery for other costly storms took about 14 months, according to one analysis. However, Puerto Rico is an extraordinary case where a colonialist history is compounded by more than a century of disinvestment and a multibillion-dollar debt crisis on an island especially vulnerable to extreme weather.
Welcome to The Frontline, your daily dose of climate realness. I’m Yessenia Funes, the climate editor at Atmos. For this week’s final edition, I’m ending my Justice 101 lesson on Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico, the perfect example of how post-disaster recovery is yet another example of injustice.
By the time Hurricane Maria hit, Conty had already been without power for some weeks. Hurricane Irma knocked out electricity for two-thirds of the island population on Sept. 6. When Hurricane Maria rolled around on Sept. 20, nearly the entire island went dark.
This is one of the most terrifying elements of the climate crisis and the extreme weather events it influences: It leaves less and less time in between catastrophes before another one appears.
To this day, the electric grid is fragile. So far, this record–breaking hurricane season has spared Puerto Rico the tragedy of 2017, but Conty still managed to lose power this summer. Tropical Storm Isaias’ 50-mile-per-hour winds in July were enough to shut off her lights for 24 hours. The yearslong recovery process—made evident in Puerto Rico’s post-Maria dystopia—seriously complicates disaster preparedness efforts within communities that rely on government assistance to become whole again after a storm.
On Sept. 18, the Federal Emergency Management Administration finally awarded Puerto Rico some long-anticipated recovery funds: almost $13 billion, the largest amount by the agency. The money is earmarked for the island’s electrical grid and education system. However, President Donald Trump didn’t give it up easily. It took him three years.
“You haven’t resourced these institutions nor have you given the local government or local people the capacity to manage them themselves, which are all legacies of colonialism.”
Meanwhile, he responded much faster to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit Texas and Florida, respectively. PBS FRONTLINE and NPR published an investigation in 2018 showing just how disparate the federal response was among these three disasters. Four days after Harvey and Irma, Trump was in Texas and Florida. As for Maria, the president took nearly two weeks to arrive in Puerto Rico. In the nine days after the respective storms hit, Puerto Rico received the least supplies, including tarps and meals. It turns out that sending supplies to an island is trickier than here in the mainland. You’d think our leaders in power would have plans in place to prevent such delays.
Democrats in Congress have suggested the election has absolutely everything to do with the timing of Trump’s recent FEMA award to Puerto Rico.
My statement on FEMA's Puerto Rico announcement today: pic.twitter.com/vFU3oa2V3w
— Rep. Nydia Velazquez (@NydiaVelazquez) September 18, 2020
More details needed, but key facts here:
1) Trump withheld aid for 3 years and could’ve released it at any time
2) Instead, despite requests from local officials and Congress, he only sent angry tweets to suffering Americans in Puerto Rico
3) What changed? His polls in Florida https://t.co/o9S6DYJS6f
— Rep. Don Beyer (@RepDonBeyer) September 18, 2020
That’s the thing about systemic racism: Our leaders love to ignore it until it threatens their power. They also love to ignore history. Trump and his administration often blamed local and state corruption as an excuse to delay long-term recovery funding on the island.
“That sort of language clearly doesn’t account for the fact that you’ve made these institutions incompetent,” said Carlos Martin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, which studies social and economic policy. “You haven’t resourced these institutions nor have you given the local government or local people the capacity to manage them themselves, which are all legacies of colonialism. That kind of subservient mentality perpetuates this idea of, ‘Well, you can’t manage your own resources, so we can’t give you the resources,’ even though properties are damaged and people are dead.”
Instead of tweeting these past three years, the president could have been investing in Puerto Rico to build climate-resilient infrastructure. Most people’s homes are no stronger today than they were three years ago. Some still lack roofs. Clean energy infrastructure remains a pipedream. Sure, the ones who can afford to have begun installing solar panels, but what about everyone else?
Karla Peña is the director of Puerto Rico for Mercy Corps, a humanitarian agency that stepped in after Hurricane Maria. She’s from the island and told me that the Puerto Rico she sees now is not the Puerto Rico she once knew. Fishers, farmers, beekeepers, and small business owners need support if they’re going to help revive the island’s economy. The coronavirus pandemic has, of course, made this even harder. They need the president to help this virus go away.
One disaster is hard enough. In a future where temperatures rise, communities may have little time to recover before another disaster comes roaring into their lives. Many will be climate-related. Others may be as random as a comet falling from the sky. The least we can do is prepare for the ones we know are coming. Even that appears too much to ask these days.