Disaster. Horror. Crisis.
Even those words fail to capture the devastation in Puerto Rico — where a week after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, more than a million people lack drinking water and food, 97 percent still don’t have power, and only a fraction of its 69 hospitals, many treating elderly patients, have fuel or power. At least 16 people have died, and the desperation threatens many more lives.
Maria destroyed the already-fragile power grid of an already-bankrupt power company. It leveled homes, split roads, cracked dams and knocked down other infrastructure, piling billions of dollars in damage on a U.S. territory buckling under the albatross of a $72-billion debt.
Getting help to the island is challenging, partly because airports and ports need to be secure. The one airport operating in San Juan is overwhelmed, and roads to transport supplies, including food, water and generators, are blocked. But more should have been done by now. The federal response has been woeful. Why can’t the thousands of federal personnel on the ground break through the barriers? Where’s the sense of urgency from the White House or Congress?
As cries for help rise from the island’s 3.4 million inhabitants and their families stateside, as well as from residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, we’ve heard little from President Donald Trump and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. We’ve seen even less action. Each day, the situation worsens, as medicines run out and conditions become unsanitary.
The state and New York City are sending supplies to Puerto Rico. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has already visited the island, is sending engineers — and troopers and military police to prevent looting. Rep. Peter King, a member of the new Puerto Rico Economic Development and Prosperity Caucus, said Congress has to provide funding for the island as it would any state. Rep. Lee Zeldin advocated the appointment of a national incident commander to coordinate the federal response. They’re both right. Once the money flows, the process will require extensive oversight and expertise to ensure funds and supplies go where they’re needed. Beyond that, there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t repeal the Jones Act, which forces Puerto Rico to accept only U.S.-flagged ships and U.S. crews. This makes imports far too expensive, and will hurt recovery efforts. Trump’s explanation is troubling: “We have . . . a lot of people who work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted.” This is no time to side with the powerful shipping industry over desperate U.S. citizens.
Amid the rubble, there could be a ray of hope. This is an opportunity to rebuild and strengthen Puerto Rico. Disaster-relief dollars could restore economic stability and propel growth. There’s a chance to design a new power system, to look to natural gas or renewables instead of oil, and to reconstruct the island’s infrastructure and delivery of public services. Island and federal officials also need to learn from this experience to be better prepared for future storms that will hit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The people of Puerto Rico are our fellow citizens, our families, our people. How loud do their cries have to get before our leaders listen?