Over the last several weeks, four serious storms damaged sections of the United States, making this year’s hurricane season distinct. Hundreds of lives were lost (and we have not stopped counting), thousands of homes and business were destroyed, millions were forced to relocate, and the costs of repairing or replacing the damage will total billions of dollars. First responders, volunteers, and nonprofit organizations stepped forward to ease pain and help return lives to some degree of normalcy, shining examples of heroism and compassion in response to the human toll the storms took.
Our leaders’ words, however, seem to tell some very different stories about what American citizens can expect from their government as the rebuilding effort goes forward. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, President Trump said the resources of the federal government would be with the people of Texas “today…tomorrow, and… EVERY SINGLE DAY AFTER, to restore, recover, and REBUILD!” Visiting Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, he pledged, “We are there for you 100 percent.” However, the US commitment to Puerto Rico has sounded very different. Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) said of Puerto Rico, “There’s only so much the US can do to help…I would then again say, ‘What is enough?’ What is the right amount to satisfy whoever says we’re not doing enough. It’s regrettable and it’s sad for those people but there only is physically, humanly possible so much that any nation could do in the wake of devastation.”
While both Florida and Texas also face significant recovery challenges and are hardly out of the woods yet, the situation in Puerto Rico is extreme and the island remains paralyzed. According to CNN, “Many communities remain cut off, with roads blocked and no phone service.…There is no Internet, no way to get cell phones working, and limited ways to communicate or get information. More than 1.2 million people are without potable water. Some people line up daily to fill up buckets with water from tank trucks, while others collect water from mountain streams.”
And, of course, the entire school system of Puerto Rico has been disrupted, which will have a long-term impact on every child. According to Education Week:
At a minimum, about 35 instructional days will be lost if schools begin something like regular academic work later this month. For many, that lost time could extend for months. And the delay, however long, will have a tremendous domino effect. To name just one example, college entrance exams for many students were slated to start the week of October 9th.
But before they can return to their educational mission, the need for schools to act “as warehouses for food to distribute to communities” will need to ease.
Is the slow and painful path back for American citizens living in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands just a reflection of their being islands, which are harder to support? Or is it a reflection of incipient bias? Writing for The Root, Columbia University professor and filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner characterized the differences between Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico as black and white: “Puerto Rico’s crisis is not generally seen as a racial matter. But it should be.” The struggling recovery reflects how deeply racism is ingrained. As Negrón-Muntaner notes, just as low-income communities of color fared worse during Katrina (and currently in the responses to Harvey and Irma), even within Puerto Rico, response is differentiated by race:
Some of the poorest and hardest-hit areas like the municipality of Loiza are predominantly black. Assistance, however, has tended to come faster to less affected but more affluent and whiter cities.
The way federal financial assistance is being offered to Puerto Rico reflects an attitude embedded in Puerto Rico’s colonial history. US Representative Luis Gutierrez, in an interview with