Hurricane Maria makes landfall in Puerto Rico
Mercy Corps does the majority of its work in countries such as Iraq, South Sudan and Afghanistan. It doesn’t usually respond to humanitarian crises in the United States. But Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria was different. “A week or two after the storm it became clear that there were massive gaps [in the ground relief efforts] and this was a time and place where our skills could help fill a need,” says Christy Delafield, senior communication officer at the Oregon-based global aid organisation. “When we arrived, the impact of Maria was immediately apparent. In San Juan, the capital, power lines were draped across the streets and the traffic lights were out. Massive highway signs, these big sturdy concrete things, had been ripped out of the ground and palm trees had been flattened. I saw field after field of ruined crops – these fields represent people’s livelihoods, and they’ve been destroyed.”
Delafield says it’s likely that Mercy Corps will remain in Puerto Rico well into 2018. The situation is dire. At time of press, two months after the storm hit, a majority of the islanders still didn’t have power, many didn’t have access to clean drinking water and there were reports of the spread of waterborne illnesses such as leptospirosis, a bacterial infection which can cause life-threatening health problems. Many people are still desperately in need of food and Mercy Corps have been working on the ground with World Central Kitchen, a non-profit run by Spanish chef José Andrés, which has served over two million meals to Puerto Ricans and which plans to continue serving food to those in need into 2018. “Most Americans [in the mainland US] don’t understand how bad the situation is,” says Delafield. “These are our fellow Americans, our neighbours. If 70 percent of people in Houston didn’t have electricity six weeks after Harvey, it would be front page news every day.”
“The federal government does not treat Puerto Rico on an equal basis with Texas or Florida”
On 30th October, the United Nations published a report that criticised the US federal government’s response to the crisis in Puerto Rico. “We can’t fail to note the dissimilar urgency and priority given to the emergency response in Puerto Rico, compared to the US states affected by hurricanes in recent months,” said Leilani Farha, the UN special rapporteur on housing. Delafield is reluctant to criticise the government, but Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, says he agrees with the UN’s findings. “It’s a fair statement,” he says. “The federal government does not treat Puerto Rico on an equal basis with Texas or Florida.”
Meléndez says that there’s been a long history of neglect by the federal government towards Puerto Rico, one of five inhabited US territories. Puerto Ricans are American citizens but have no representation in Congress and can’t vote in presidential elections if they live on the island. In a non-binding referendum in June, 97 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for US statehood, although turnout was extremely low.
Meléndez says it’s too early to say whether the political and economic fallout from Maria will have an impact on Puerto Rico’s political status, although he anticipates an exodus to the US mainland – a report published by his department in October suggests that by 2019 almost 500,000 citizens may have left the island. “We expect that many will leave for Florida, a swing state, which could have big consequences for electoral participation and voting,” he says. “[Due to the lack of electricity] Puerto Ricans haven’t had access to the media so they’re not seeing what we’re seeing about the federal response, but anecdotally I’m hearing that people are going from ‘we have to survive this’ to ‘I’m really angry about this’ – and that might have a longer-term political impact.”
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