By Christianna Silva
A year and a half ago, in mid-September of 2017, Hurricane Maria began making its way across the Atlantic Ocean. On September 20, it made landfall on Puerto Rico, resulting in one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. The island has not yet recovered, and some residents are wondering if it ever will: the storm killed almost 3,000 people and displaced some 241,000.
On Monday, April 1, 2019, Democrats in the Senate blocked a bill promising $13.5 billion in disaster aid for the country generally; Republicans had allotted only $600 million toward food stamp assistance for Puerto Ricans, prioritizing $12.9 billion for mainland efforts. For the next two days, President Trump launched a visceral attack on Puerto Rico’s lawmakers, calling them “grossly incompetent” and once again singling out Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, as a particular target for his tirade. (This certainly isn’t the first time Trump has responded to Puerto Rico’s crisis with a lack of empathy, either: his track record includes launching into an odd war against Puerto Rican leaders, and even attacking the survivors of the storm.)
“Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane, more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before, & all their local politicians do is complain & ask for more money,” Trump tweeted, incorrectly. While the hurricane wrought an estimated $90 billion worth of damage on the island, per NBC, FEMA has given about $11.2 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, the New York Times reported.
“My initial reaction was rage,” Alexandra-Marie Figueroa Miranda, the campaign and activism coordinator at Amnesty International in Puerto Rico, told MTV News. “I was so upset that I started crying because it's exhausting.”
Much of the work of rebuilding Puerto Rico has fallen upon the people who live there; Figueroa Miranda notes in particular the organizations that are, among other initiatives, working to keep abortion legal and safe, making it safer for protestors to voice their concerns without getting arrested, and working on further investigations into why hurricane relief has been handled so poorly. And, as survivors of the hurricane attempt to wade through poverty and destruction, they’re disproportionately more likely to develop PTSD, depression, and other trauma-related disorders, issues only perpetuated by feeling a continued lack of support from the U.S. government.
To look at Puerto Rico’s current crisis as one that began when the hurricane made landfall is to ignore the issues that Puerto Ricans have been forced to navigate for decades. In the months leading up to the devastating Hurricane Maria, the island was facing a massive debt crisis, with a poverty rate almost double that of Mississippi’s, the U.S.’s poorest state, according to Quartz. And life on the island isn’t getting easier now, as the government is all but forcing residents to work within a system that is designed to make it difficult for them to succeed.
Figueroa Miranda left the island after she graduated high school to go to school in the states, but moved back to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit. Many on the island, though, have been leaving in a mass exodus as a result of the storm — an estimated 130,000 people left the territory, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
They had good reason to: For months, the government failed to keep an accurate tally of the deaths caused by the storm’s aftermath. Power on the island failed. People were unable to find food or even clean water. The federal government did pass emergency funding for additional food stamp aid to the island, which was up to be reauthorized in March 2019. But Congress missed the March 2019 deadline to reauthorize that funding, and now, about 43 percent of the people who live on the island are facing a sudden and aggressive cut to SNAP, the benefit they use for food, diapers, and other essentials, according to the Washington Post.
“I couldn't function on the island,” Carlos Mata Cancel, a 20-year-old Puerto Rican activist now living in New York, told MTV News about the aftermath of the storm. “I had no ability to study, think, or to see myself as human and feel because everything reminded me of what had happened. Everything left me breathless and it left me paralyzed and I couldn't feel.”
In the span of a month, Carlos was evacuated from his college campus in Puerto Rico, and helped his mother and brother through disaster-related illnesses. At the time, he was also dealing with other traumas that are common for young people, in his case, a breakup. All of those stressors compounded; eventually, Puerto Rico no longer felt like home.
“Every single person on the island felt the depression, the sadness, the trauma,” Carlos, who is now a physics student at CUNY, told MTV News. “It was ever-present in the collective unconscious, but we had no ability to act on it… The resources essentially assigned to the island were borderline negligent, if not extremely negligent.”
Part of the reason Carlos and so many more Puerto Ricans felt neglected by the U.S. is because, well, they are, and always have been. During the Spanish-American War, which began in 1898, Puerto Rico was a Spanish territory. The U.S. invaded Puerto Rico, and the residents there helped U.S. forces by attacking Spanish-owned businesses and property under the promise that, if the U.S. won, they would become independent. However, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico the U.S. in the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. ignored the new, democratically-elected local parliament of the island, instead creating a new system in which the residents of the island were technically Americans, but without the same rights as American citizens.
For U.S. states, the government is committed to funding social programs, like food stamps and Medicaid, without needing to take a vote. Because it has only ever been relegated to the status of territory rather than state, Puerto Rico is forced to fund these programs through block grants from the federal government. Congress has to take a vote every year to renew it — and even though Puerto Rico has a congressperson, they don’t have any voting rights on the matter (Puerto Rican residents’ votes for president also aren’t counted). The need for this funding is significant, as Puerto Rico was removed from the U.S. government’s federal food stamp program, NAP, in 1982, Buzzfeed News reports. They’re also are often refused the same amount of Medicaid resources as U.S. states and they aren’t eligible for SSIs (Supplemental Security Income), which provides tax-eligible help to low-income elderly, blind, or disabled people. Due to the Jones Act, people on the island can’t even receive packages in the mail without them first being delivered to the U.S., raising prices on everything from food to clothes to a simple letter.
“We're asking for our lives and our experiences to be validated and for our humanity to be protected after years of a process of colonization, which has rendered us powerless in front of the U.S.,” Figueroa Miranda told MTV News.
Reality isn’t likely to stop the president from claiming that the federal government is doing plenty. On Thursday, March 28, as he was getting ready to fly to a political rally in Michigan, he told reporters: “I’ve taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever.” But Democratic lawmakers insist he’s gone as far as stalling their investigation into relief efforts after Hurricanes Irma and Maria to maintain the facade. Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, who is leading the investigation as chair of the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on government operations, also told the Daily Beast he hasn’t seen key documents about the response to the disaster that he requested from the administration, and that the committee might be forced to use its subpoena power to obtain them.
It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that the federal government isn’t receptive to Puerto Rico’s needs: There were reports that the Trump administration wildly mismanaged relief efforts after the hurricane and, more recently, the president has been telling his aides and GOP allies that the island is receiving too much assistance from the federal government, according to the Washington Post. In a meeting on Tuesday, March 26, he privately told aides he didn’t want “another single dollar going to the island,” the Post reported, and in January, the White House released a statement calling Puerto Rico’s food stamp funding request “excessive and unnecessary.”
“This is a significant part of the population and we're talking about seniors and children that count on the food stamp benefits at a time where the demand and hunger and security has gone up after Hurricane Maria,” said Erica Gonzalez, the director of Power 4 Puerto Rico, a group created in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that advocates for displaced families and the “discriminatory” federal response to the island’s natural disasters. “That's how dire the situation is.”
“We've been through so many things for so many years and then after Hurricane Maria happened, it was like all these problems that we've been going through were finally unveiled,” Figueroa Miranda said. “Somebody took the lid off and it was like, we can't ignore this any longer. We need to actually organize and mobilize because the government is not doing it for us.”