U.S. Governance Exacerbates Natural Disaster in Puerto Rico


By Alexia Rauen

The widespread lack of electricity across Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane María has been widely publicized and carries with it deep concern for the lack of vital resources available to the island. As Puerto Rico is a United States territory, the federal government is responsible for ensuring the reconstruction of the island. But is it doing enough now, and will it be doing enough in the future, when the world has turned its attention to the next headline-worthy natural disaster?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known as FEMA, is intended only to provide short-term aid to areas in the United States that have just experienced a disaster, whereas The Department of Housing and Urban Development is tasked with providing long-term relief. Trump has previously stated his desire to dissolve the branch that handles long-term disaster efforts. Additionally, the Jones Act, which restricts vessels that travel to Puerto Rico (U.S. ships are welcome, but any foreign ships must pay tariffs – or unload to a U.S. ship in Florida), is creating an uproar as it makes bringing aid relief much more difficult. It’s also been cited as creating significant debt for Puerto Rico – according to studies cited by an Op-Ed in The New York Times, “if the Jones Act did not exist, then neither would the public debt of Puerto Rico.”

It is important to note the political sway of Texas and Florida, with 38 and 29 representatives in Congress respectively. Conversely, Puerto Rico has only one representative who cannot vote. Should it be true that “Republicans and Democrats will inevitably debate the merits of long-term relief for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria,  will Puerto Rico be ignored in favor of mainland citizens? U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan may have announced Puerto Rico will receive resources comparable to those given to Texas and Florida, but there is uncertainty as to if this will pan out given the sluggish nature of aid delivery to the island.

President Trump has proven to be a leader unable to relinquish his Twitter handle. He has firmly aligned himself with big business, made clear again in his recent tweets regarding the impact of natural disaster in Puerto Rico. In a series of three tweets, which begin by praising Texas and Florida recovery, he emphasizes the “billions of dollarsowed to Wall Street.”

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Trump, of course, does not believe that the United States has taken too long in providing assistance to Puerto Rico. The “very big ocean,” he reminds U.S. citizens, stands between the U.S. and the island territory. It only possible to postulate how Puerto Rico would have developed over the last century without its standing as a U.S. territory, but it has continued to be ignored in Congress while Puerto Ricans utilize referendums to call for statehood. Perhaps if the United States had allowed Puerto Rico its independence in 1898, this new path would have allowed the country to develop its economy and infrastructure away from the harsh shadow across the ocean.

Image from Flickr.