Hurricane Maria landed on the shores of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, on September 20, 2017. The official death toll had stood at 64. Now, on August 29, 2018, more than 11 months later, that toll has been updated to 2,975. The new number has emerged following Governor Ricardo Rossello accepting the findings of an independent investigation. Rossello told reporters “I’m giving an order to update the official number of deaths to 2,975,” Governor Ricardo Rossello told reporters on Tuesday. “Although this is an estimate, it has a scientific basis.” Even prior to this official recognition, many reports had been indicating that the human cost was far greater than the initially reported number.
A Harvard University study had estimated the death toll to be even higher than this official estimate, at a figure of more than 4,600. In the continuing aftermath of the storm, Puerto Rico is demanding the U.S. Congress for $139 billion USD in funds to aid in the recovery. The territory has struggled to repair its infrastructure and power grid, which had already had significant issues prior to the damage of Hurricane Maria. The initial governmental number was based on direct deaths caused by the hurricane, which included being hit by debris and being crushed by the collapse of buildings.
The investigation and report were far broader in attributing deaths to the hurricane and its aftermath. Those who died due to poor healthcare services, lack of electricity and clean water, among other factors, were counted in the new death toll. The initial toll was primed to rise, given the high-velocity winds that caused approximately 90 billion USD in damage, leaving households with roughly 84 days without electricity, 64 days without water, and 41 days without cellular network coverage. The response of the U.S. government to this disaster had been widely criticized by many globally.
The response of the U.S. government has been horrific in addressing the wider issues that were attributed to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico. President Donald Trump’s praised the governmental response, which led to the now infamous quote proclaiming that the destruction in Puerto Rico is not a “real catastrophe like Katrina.” Hurricane Katrina, led to widespread death and destruction in parts of Louisiana, including New Orleans, claiming approximately 1,200 lives. The human toll of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has far exceeded that number.
The lack of clarity by the U.S. government does not warrant Trump awarding himself a perfect rating on the issue. The criticism of the response has been persistent. One of the major critics has been Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, the capital and largest city in Puerto Rico. She told CNN on Wednesday that “the administration killed the Puerto Ricans with neglect. The Trump administration led us to believe they were helping when they weren’t up to par, and they didn’t allow other countries to help us.”
On the ground, there are many concerns regarding the aid that has come through so far. One aspect that is challenging in rebuilding is that there are residents who have been continually denied individual assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because they were unable to prove that they owned the home that was destroyed earlier. There have been over a million applications to FEMA for disaster assistance, as of May 1, 2018, but over 300,000 were deemed ineligible. This is reflective of deeper issues in Puerto Rico, which includes a long history of illegal construction and poor housing development. Some estimates suggest that around 260,000 houses were built while lacking appropriate legal documentation. Others suggest that this an even bigger issue, as the Puerto Rico Builders Association estimates that over half of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was built informally. Land passed on from generation to generation had never been registered, which creates major issues when seeking federal aid.
There are a range of other issues in the assistance efforts to Puerto Rico, which includes issues with the aid itself. Complaints arose on social media, including Twitter, regarding the quality of the food aid that Puerto Ricans received. Food shipments included a large amount of candy and chips, which lack nutrition and are insufficient for use as proper meals. Fruit category items were often far too sugary, while vegetable items, largely of the canned variety, had exceedingly high amounts of sodium. As obesity rates in Puerto Rico are in the 30 to 35 percent range among adults, the content of the aid given can easily exacerbate existing issues like diabetes.
The current crisis requires a multifaceted approach. A stronger governmental recognition and response to the continuing crisis, in terms of raising further awareness, along with a larger amount of aid, is vital. Raising more awareness about what is happening to U.S. citizens on a U.S. territory is important to building greater public awareness of the crisis as well as in organizing support and aid networks outside governmental channels. These can assist more extensive governmental supports in helping to rebuild Puerto Rico and assisting residents with their issues.
Another aspect that becomes clear when looking into the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is that there are many underlying structural problems in Puerto Rico, which amplified the damage resulting from the hurricane. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had recently given Puerto Rico a grant in the amount of $18.5 billion USD. This represents the largest singular amount of disaster recovery assistance given by the agency. A prior allocation of $1.5 billion means that the total HUD investment stands at $20 billion. One of the issues public officials want to address is the widespread presence of informally established houses and communities. It is expected that such aid will take some time in becoming available. Using a portion of this and other investments in assisting with resolving documentation issues would make it easier for many residents to get assistance in rebuilding their homes and their lives.
Delivering a higher standard of aid relief to Puerto Ricans is another important aspect in addressing the lingering effects of the hurricane. The issues with the quality of the food aid given, which were discussed above, can be addressed by delivering more balanced meals that consider the health status of affected people. This has been an issue in providing aid across the world, and it is something that should be handled in a more considerate and comprehensive manner, to improve health outcomes among survivors.
Additionally, looking at the issue from a broader economic lens reveals other solutions. Legislation that would allow the privatization of parts of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was approved on June 20, 2018. Along with other major changes, there is a plan to create a work requirement for the food assistance program for those in or near poverty. Freezing and reducing pensions is another part of the wider plan to reduce Puerto Rico’s debt. Overall, this austerity-driven approach is highly problematic and is likely to harm residents in a push to reduce debt, while corporations can benefit immensely from this plan to internalize profits and externalize costs.
Instead, the idea of a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico, which has been proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, is an example of an ambitious infrastructure development project. Widespread investment in a range of areas offers a pathway to fixing the damage caused by Hurricane Maria, while better addressing the underlying problems in Puerto Rico that escalated the severity of the hurricane. Using the crisis as a pathway to expansive infrastructure development, in areas such as energy, education, housing, jobs, and the environment, may be effective in reducing the suffering associated with natural disasters in Puerto Rico while considerably improving living standards.