There's a New Chapter in America's Shameful Abandonment of Puerto Rico

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NPR reported on Monday that FEMA will “officially shut off” emergency food and water aid to Puerto Rico on January 31, more than four months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. According to Puerto Rico’s official status site, 97 percent of the island has water and 92 percent has access to a supermarket. “The reality is that we just need to look around,” FEMA Caribbean Area Division director Alejandro De La Campa told NPR. “Supermarkets are open, and things are going back to normal.”

For many Puerto Ricans, however, things are far from normal.

Over 450,000 Puerto Ricans still lack power, which the Washington Post called the “longest power outage in modern U.S. history” in a recent report on how the outage is affecting hundreds of schools. Officials have said that they don’t expect power to be fully restored across the island until May.


Three-thousand Puerto Ricans are still living in hotels across the mainland United States. The island’s housing market, already in rough shape, is on the edge of a meltdown, with up to a third of all homeowners facing foreclosures. And although the official death toll from Hurricane Maria is 64, a New York Times report in December estimated that the actual toll on the island could be up to 1,052.

Last month, National Resources Defense Council attorney Mekela Panditharatne wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that took on FEMA’s estimate that 95 percent of the island had access to potable water. “That just isn’t possible,” she wrote. “We put out a report in May showing that in 2015, 99.5 percent of Puerto Ricans—virtually all residents—were served by water sources that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

To this day, Puerto Rico—which in addition to Maria, is dealing with a debt crisis made worse by an unelected oversight body hellbent on austerity—still doesn’t have what it needs to rebuild. In November, Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced that he would seek $94 billion for recovery; although the House passed a bill in December giving the island and other territories affected by the disaster $81 billion, the proposal has yet to receive a vote in the Senate.

What Puerto Rico did receive was $5 billion in low-interest Treasury loans, in a woefully underwhelming October relief package for states and territories affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma that canceled none of Puerto Rico’s debt. That same month, President Donald Trump announced to reporters that he gave his government’s recovery efforts in Puerto Rico “a ten [out of ten].”


Puerto Rico was hit by a deadly natural disaster, one that no one could have stopped. But as FEMA declares the emergency response portion of the crisis officially over, it’s clear that the federal government’s failure in Maria’s aftermath to provide adequate relief to the island’s residents, many of whom have lost everything, was and continues to be a crime. And like the overwhelming majority of crimes committed by powerful people, it’s likely that no one will ever have to answer for it.

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