It has been nearly a month since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. In that time, Donald Trump has done his best to display a complete lack of leadership, tweeting about the NFL instead of the island’s crisis, breezily dropping in to throw a few paper towels rolls around, and attacking the mayor of San Juan. And just last week, Trump tweeted that “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”
All of this, despite the fact that a huge majority of the island still lacks electricity, people are drinking water from Superfund sites, and more rural and remote areas on the island are still having trouble receiving aid. Now there are concerns about post-hurricane disease outbreaks. While there is continued debate as to who is responsible for the humanitarian crisis on the island, it’s undeniable that Puerto Rico is far from achieving a semblance of recovery. Yet, the president claimed on Friday that “They’re all healing. Their states and territories are healing and they are healing rapidly.”
This is simply not the case. To get a better sense of the situation on the ground, I spoke to Frankie Miranda, senior vice president at the Hispanic Federation, a non-profit that has been working to coordinate aid to the island.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
SPLINTER: Tell me about your work with the Hispanic Federation and its efforts in Puerto Rico
I just got back from Puerto Rico last weekend. I had to travel there because my grandmother passed a week ago. I took advantage of seeing my family and making sure they were OK, but at same time it allowed me to witness the situation on the island firsthand.
The Hispanic Federation is an organization dedicated to providing technical assistance and capacity-building grants to other non-profits. Because of our involvement with groups here in the Puerto Rican diaspora and also our work on the island, we were very aware that this was going to be a catastrophic emergency. We started preparing for that. The first phase of our efforts was to collect items and send them to Puerto Rico. Soon after we realized that the federal response and response from local government...that there were issues with regards to the magnitude of this emergency.
In what ways?
I grew up in Puerto Rico, I have gone through several hurricanes in the past, but this is the first time you have the island losing complete power, water supply, no communications, and also an extreme shortage of gas. So from the very beginning, when we were starting to get reports from the island, we realized that the aid was not getting to those who need it the most.
Instead of sending aid to San Juan and having a bottleneck at the airports that were not fully operational, we started looking for alternatives. My sister, who is working for Walgreens in Puerto Rico, told me that she was able to move merchandise and moving trucks out of the ports and out of the warehouses in Puerto Rico and be able to reach half of the 120 stores on the island. I said, ‘How are you able to do that and not the government?’ and she said, ‘Well there is a series of food distributors on the island that already had supplies, they already had items inside of the warehouse even before Maria hit.’ So we decided to skip all the bottlenecking and we were able to start contacting the food distributors on the island. Within the warehouses on the island we were able to move more than a million pounds of food into 13 towns that were hard hit. In that way we were completely bypassing the FEMA response and the emergency response from the government of Puerto Rico. That’s how we started to move water, food, batteries, and other supplies.
What do you think about the federal government’s response to the situation down there?
There’s a lot of conflicting reports. Our experience has been that the 13 towns that we have served so far, they have told us that they have not gotten help, or they have not gotten enough help. Some of them have said all they have gotten is a shipment of snacks, which is troublesome when you take into consideration that there are people there suffering from dehydration and malnutrition.
The other part that I’m extremely concerned about is the emphasis on the death toll. At beginning when President Trump arrived to Puerto Rico, there was a very low death toll and he tried to compare it with Katrina, making it sound like Puerto Rico was having a great time and that it was not such an important or grave emergency. But I want us to be very careful with those metrics. Let me remind you, many of municipalities have not been able to really calculate how many people died during aftermath or during the emergency. And how do you count the casualties? If my grandmother who needed oxygen and was in a home-assisted living facility, is she going to be counted as part of the death toll? Her facility lost power, many of the employees had enormous challenges to actually get there, and at some point she was not receiving the oxygen and the other services that she needed to stay alive. So what exactly is the death toll? There is enormous suffering on the island. I want people to really understand that when they make these estimates and they are the most positive forecasts.
Again, we can argue if federal response was timely or not. What I heard and saw on the ground is that it’s still needed and that they need to move faster.
What do you need right now that is the most pressing issue?
Money. We’re going to continue our fundraising efforts, we have raised $14 million in 24 days. More than 100,000 donors have contributed and this is something that we’re going to try to continue pushing as much as possible. With this money we can invest in projects that we are identifying right now, like being able to invest in purification of water plants and projects that are trying to create solar panels to provide power to communities.
We are also very concerned about those communities in the mountains who have not received help as of yet. The challenge is making contact with the municipalities, finding out where distribution centers are. It’s a constant hurdle to be able to move faster. We have wanted to serve many more towns, but at this point it’s very difficult to do that. I was able to make contact with the mayor of Corozal, a town in the mountains, because the mayor went to my grandmother’s funeral. He was there with his team, and I got the information I needed and passed it on to my colleague here in New York via WhatsApp and we were able to serve that town just because I was able to run into the mayor.
Are there things that you think are not getting enough media coverage?
The media needs to continue paying attention to the fact that this is going to be a very long recovery. We cannot abandon American citizens in Puerto Rico. Many people still think this is foreign aid to an island in the Caribbean and that these people had enough and that they should make do on their own. We’re not challenging or questioning the aid that went to Houston, or the aid that went to places in Florida after Hurricane Irma. We’re just asking for fair aid to Puerto Rico.
Are a lot of people leaving the island?
When I went to Puerto Rico I was able to get on a flight that was half-empty going in, and coming back it was completely full. I have never in my life seen the bridge that connects the plane to the gate at JFK so full of personnel from the airline with wheelchairs waiting to get people out of the plane. It was completely full. Normally you see one or two wheelchairs, but here it was the entire bridge all the way to the gate. I saw people at the airport in Puerto Rico moaning in pain, people that were not ready to take a commercial flight, but their situation is so desperate—if you are in some sort of compromised position with your health or you’re too old or you’re unemployed and you see there is no hope inside and you can afford a one-way ticket, you are going to leave the island.
Are there any problems that are happening on the island that you think people aren’t hearing about?
Those who were a little bit prepared and had some sort of generator, like small businesses, are seeing that none of this equipment is prepared to withstand four weeks of constant use. Right now those small businesses, hospitals, restaurants, or any kind of office that provides critical needs to the population are now facing the fact that their equipment was never designed to withstand all this. So even those who have been prepared, and those who are getting back online are still facing enormous challenges.
The second thing is that because of the rainy season and people that are going into the streams to get water, there are a lot of concerns about mosquitoes and illnesses like dengue. We still are very worried about the health impact of the emergency and people not being able to sanitize everything properly, not having access to drinkable water. On the AM radio, which is the one that was functioning when I was there, it was encouraging people to boil water before using it. But if you don’t have electricity and you don’t have gas how are you going to boil the water? It is an overwhelming snowball effect.
The story of the recovery of Puerto Rico will take many months. We need to make people understand that this is not a one-stop deal to do something then move on, we need to continue having this conversation.