The people of Puerto Rico remain neglected and cut off from crucial services 100 days after Category 4 storm Hurricane Maria laid waste to the struggling colonial territory.
The poor state of the island nation illustrates the stark disparity in the Trump administration's response to the needs of the U.S. citizens who populate Puerto Rico versus the quick government response to the needs of Texas and Florida, whose residents also experienced devastating hurricanes in the fall.
While President Donald Trump once boasted about his response to the disaster – which he gave a 10 out of 10 rating – local officials would likely give his administration's lackadaisical and seemingly careless recovery efforts a score closer to zero.
“He has failed the moral imperative that any leader of the free world should hold at the highest level,” said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who famously clashed with the president.
“All he needs to do is simple: do his job. I think the world has seen a commander-in-chief unable to command,” she added in her interview with Newsweek. In a later interview with ABC News, she called him the “disaster-in-chief.”
While the country's ramshackle electrical grid is currently able to provide 50 percent of the country's residents with power, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, remains unable to provide electricity to areas where the need for power is most dire, such as hospitals and other healthcare service providers.
“The government has already talked about generation, but if it’s not getting to the hospitals or businesses or homes," Cruz said. “The power isn’t going anywhere.”
The lack of electricity has compounded the horrors faced by Puerto Rico's already-traumatized population. In addition to the significant health risks presented by the population, the disaster has also led to a wave of suicidal thoughts among the island's residents.
“Some people still don’t have light on the island, and it takes a toll. I met a man and he told me the day I met him, ‘Sometimes I feel like grabbing a rope,’” Alicia Schwartz, a home care nurse from New York City who is volunteering on the island, told Newsweek.
“There’s a lot of death. I had friends telling me, ones who lived in Puerto Rico, that there were bins and trucks they were putting dead bodies in.”
Meanwhile, the island's government finally conceded that the low official death toll of 66 was a fiction after two independent reports estimated the deaths of over 1,000 people as a result of the hurricane. The island's administration announced last week that it would recount the fatalities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, claims that 96 percent of Puerto Ricans now enjoy access to potable water, a miraculous recovery from the weeks following Hurricane Maria when residents lined up at aid distribution centers to receive bottled water.
Analysts claim the figure defies all logic and reason, especially since a report from May 2017 detailed how Puerto Rico had the worst rate of drinking water violations in the entire United States and its colonial territories. Over 3.4 million of the U.S.-controlled territory's residents have been subjected to water supplied by systems that exercised poor adherence to federal regulations, leading to a dire situation for the Puerto Rican people. Among the illegal and toxic contaminants found in the Puerto Rican water were volatile organic compounds, disinfection byproducts and bacteria. Many of the bacteria and carcinogenic chemicals were common culprits for birth defects.
The water also miserably fails to meet lead and copper regulation standards, with aged pipes contaminating water with the metals. Lead poisoning stunts the cognitive development of infants and children, and no level of exposure is considered safe.
According to Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Mekela Panditharatne, Puerto Rico's stinking, ill-tasting and brown tap water can only be considered “potable” if one distorts and twists the very definition of “portability,” removing safety standards and legal compliance from the criteria for what makes water safe and drinkable. Meanwhile, electricity supplies to water treatment plants remain intermittent, leading to frequent power failures and shutoffs.
“There are numerous accounts of waterborne disease and bacterial illness in Puerto Rico,” wrote Pantharatne. “Whether these illnesses are caused by floodwaters, drinking water or other sources of water exposure, they are a cause for serious concern.”
“Such misrepresentations can mask major health threats and hamstring a robust federal response. Puerto Ricans deserve better.”
The desperate situation faced by the Puerto Rican people has caused over 250,000 locals to simply flee their homes on the island and seek better fortunes in Florida.
“The exodus will continue. If you can’t get the stores open because you don’t have electricity people aren’t going to have jobs, and they need to provide for their families,” said Florida Senator Bill Nelson.
While FEMA has so far approved more than US$660 million in aid for individuals along with more than US$450 million in public assistance, Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello has asked the federal government for a total of US$94.4 billion in aid, including US$31.1 billion for housing and US$17.8 billion to rebuild its ruined power grid.
The colonial territory remains in a state of debt peonage, saddled with US$120 billion of combined bond and pension debt and near-insolvent public health systems. Earlier this year, it filed the largest-ever U.S. government bankruptcy. However, when the 155-mile-per-hour winds of Hurricane Maria slammed into the island, the economy simply ground to a halt.
Last Thursday, however, a Republican-controlled Senate put the brakes on a disaster aid bill would provide US$81 billion in aid to help Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and several states hit by this year's hurricanes or wildfires.
As a result of the budgetary crisis in Puerto Rico, thousands of police officers are still owed their back pay – an issue that has led to officers sicking out as a passive means of protesting their unpaid wages. Over 2,700 officers are absent daily on the island, a huge increase from a pre-hurricane rate of 550 absences per day.
According to Senator Axel Roque, one precinct on the island only had three officers to cover four towns on Christmas Eve while another was forced to ask a neighboring precinct for more officers to cover shifts.
“Citizens are paying taxes and expect that the government fulfils its obligations to guarantee their security,” he told the Associated Press.
100 days after Hurricane Maria, the 3 million-plus U.S. citizens on Puerto Rico continue to languish on the island, denied their basic rights to self-determination and sovereignty, or even any protection from the acute humanitarian crisis that continues to unfold across the nation.