Refugees International took our first mission to a location within the United States of America – to Puerto Rico – between November 13 and November 21, as we believed that the issues raised in the run up and the wake of Hurricane Maria were very similar to concerns we’ve witnessed in disasters borne by natural disasters elsewhere around the world, and we believed we could play a helpful role here.
It is heartbreaking that Puerto Ricans still are literally and figuratively in the dark about support they can expect to receive.
Our team was led by Alice Thomas, who was accompanied by board member Sarah Bacon and RI staffer Alanna Fox. I joined the team for the final part of this important mission.
During the last several days, we’ve visited communities in the municipalities in Yabucoa, Comerío, Lares, Adjuntos, Canóvanas, Loíza, San Juan and Guaynabo. We also met with officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the office of the governor as well as mayors, local community leaders, and aid agencies involved in the response.
In short, two months after Hurricane Maria pummeled this island, the U.S. response remains too slow and bureaucratic, and lacks transparency and the broad information-sharing that is essential to an effective disaster response. It is heartbreaking that Puerto Ricans still are literally and figuratively in the dark about support they can expect to receive. The U.S. government promotes effective disaster prevention and response in countries around the world, but we must do much more to practice at home what we are preaching to others. The situation here underscores the importance of not only improving our efforts generally, but also sustaining and enhancing support to the people of Puerto Rico.
Three major concerns have emerged during our mission.
First, while it is critical that we look ahead, we cannot ignore the fact that the initial response from the federal government reflected a lack of leadership and a lack of urgency, which has implications to this very day. The President paid little attention at the outset of the crisis; it took many days for the first senior administration officials to be on the scene, and the initial deployment of the U.S. military was insufficient – for example, it paled in comparison to the magnitude of the U.S. military response surrounding the Haiti earthquake in 2010. It’s now clear that hundreds of people have died as the direct or indirect result of this hurricane, and a quicker and more robust response may well have prevented many of those deaths. I’m also convinced that in so many parts of the island, the emergency continues. In the communities we’ve visited, we’ve seen continued and dramatic suffering, and the failure of initial relief efforts to result in basic repairs is compounding challenges. Because so much of the island is experiencing a continuing emergency, I’m concerned that the withdrawal of U.S. troops is premature.
Second, for so many Puerto Ricans, the process of seeking and obtaining reconstruction assistance is mind-numbingly opaque, and FEMA must do better to get information out to people who have no access to the internet, cell service or even newspapers. Most people we met have limited understanding about how it all works, the aid to which they’re entitled or when it might arrive. In short, the process must be made simpler and more accessible.
And finally, Congress must recognize that the significant, substantial and life-altering problems here are not the fault of the people of Puerto Rico. In fact, we have met so many extraordinary community leaders helping their fellow citizens – it has been inspiring. But the needs here are extraordinary, especially given the economic circumstances of the island. And the people of Puerto Rico, without voting representation in Congress, are looking to Congress for help. Congress must move forward to generously fund assistance for basic services, continued relief, and reconstruction.