City’s Puerto Rican community demands more hurricane relief for storm-ravaged island

The Puerto Rican community in the city is calling on Congress to do more in the island's recovery effort. Above, a protest sign at Union Square Park during a rally on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017.
The Puerto Rican community in the city is calling on Congress to do more in the island’s recovery effort. Above, a protest sign at Union Square Park during a rally on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. Photo Credit: Getty Images for Turner / Craig Barritt

The city’s Puerto Rican community teamed up with environmental activists on Wednesday to demand a resilient recovery effort for the hurricane-ravaged island during a rally in Union Square Park.

“What happened to Puerto Rico is a climate injustice. Every proposal on that tiny island is to extract and to take, to extract and to take,” said Elizabeth C. Yeampierre, executive director of the Brooklyn-based community group UPROSE, which helped organize the rally.

A giant black and white banner with the words “A Just, Sustainable Puerto Rico” rose up over a stage in the park ahead of the 5 p.m. event. Attendees sported handmade signs that read, “#justrecovery” and “#ourpowerpr.”

Loaiza Rivera brought a Puerto Rican flag stripped of its colors because she is resisting the red, white and blue. “We are not in mourning, we are in resistance.”

UPROSE, The Climate Justice Alliance and a number of other organizations across 30 states are calling on Congress to pass a federal aid package and create long-term goals for protecting the island against future storms under the “Our Power for Puerto Rico” campaign.

The comprehensive aid package should include debt relief, guidelines for transparency in distributing aid resources, a review of infrastructure and a repeal of the Jones Act, which regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters, rally organizers said. A petition with more than 5,000 signatures was delivered to U.S. representatives in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

In New York, a steady rain didn’t deter the crowd of more than 100 as they stood huddled under umbrellas, listening to Yeampierre as she implored the crowd – in English and in Spanish – to create change, fight and resist. 

Yeampierre, of Sunset Park, said the Trump administration has shown a lack of empathy for those struggling in Puerto Rico.

“When we found that they could drop helicopters with food and they didn’t use it for Puerto Rico – it’s a lack of humanity in terms of the response of the government,” she said ahead of the rally.

In September, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria, which made landfall on the island as a Category 4 storm. Maria wiped out the island’s power grid, which officials said will take months to rebuild.

Ocean Hill resident Loaiza Rivera, 29, said she last spoke with her cousin and sister, who live in southwestern Puerto Rico, on Tuesday when the electricity was switched on for a little bit. She said they were able to exchange a few messages on Facebook before the battery ran out.

“The fear I felt when the hurricane hit is the same fear I felt during 9/11 as a 12-year-old. It’s terrifying,” Rivera said.

UPROSE is also leading a donation collection. The group is currently accepting water filters, work gloves, micro-green seeds, solar-based radios, satellite phones, solar stoves, bikes with carts that can be used for transportation, bike repair kits, solar flashlights and solar chargers. Members of the organization plan to ship the donations and distribute the items themselves, organizers said.

Tara Rodriguez Bessosa, 34, founder of the Department of Food in Puerto Rico, just returned from the island and said, “the people are fine.”

“Everybody is helping each other … We are strong. Everything else is on the floor but we are standing up,” she told the crowd in Union Square Park.

Bessosa’s organization is working to channel relief efforts toward food sovereignty because she believes the only way Puerto Rico can come back from the devastation is “seed by seed, farmer by farmer, community by community.”

The House of Representatives is set to vote on Thursday on a disaster relief bill that includes a $4.9 billion loan for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of a $36.5 billion package to help the country recover from several devastating hurricanes and the deadly wildfires in California, an administration official said on Wednesday.

But the loan is intended to be a short-term measure to help the cash-strapped island territory pay urgent bills, according to the official.

“The Community Disaster Loan cannot and does not address the recovery, rebuilding and future of Puerto Rico, which the administration intends to address with a more long-term solution in concert with the Puerto Rican government, oversight board, court and Congress,” the official said.

The broader package set for the House vote on Thursday includes a provision enabling low-income Puerto Ricans to receive emergency nutrition assistance.

With Reuters

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