Student Take on the Puerto Rico Crisis

By P. Iannetta

More than a month ago, on September 20th, 2017, Puerto Rico sustained a direct hit from Hurricane Maria. The path of the historic category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 mph took it directly over the tiny Caribbean Island and United States territory. Maria- the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years, and the third strongest ever to hit U.S. territory- destroyed hundreds of homes, decimated the already stressed and antiquated power infrastructure knocking out the power across the entire island and causing heavy flooding.

Most of the island is still without power, food and water supplies are low, fuel to run generators is scarce, and help from the Mainland United States has been sluggish to arrive. What has happened since the storm has been truly catastrophic for Puerto Rico. Today, there is still little power on the island, no water to drink or bathe in or flush toilets with, little cell service or food, and dozens of remote villages completely cut off from everything for weeks with no relief in sight. On Monday, September 25th, five days after the storm, Governor Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico said, “Make no mistake- this is a humanitarian disaster involving 3.4 million U.S. citizens.”

At that time, while U.S. news agencies were still focusing on the devastation from Harvey and Irma to Texas and Florida.

According to a report in the New York Times on September 26th, a poll of 2200 adult Americans conducted by Morning Consult found that only 54 percent of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico, which is a commonwealth of the United States, are in fact U.S. citizens. Ignorance and inaccuracy on this matter is important, because Americans tend to support cuts to foreign aid when asked to evaluate spending priorities. In a New York Times poll, “support for additional aid was strongly associated with knowledge of the citizenship status of Puerto Ricans.” American support for aid to Puerto Rico was significantly higher among respondents first made aware of their U.S. citizenship status. Lack of media attention could also lead to people on the mainland to ignore Puerto Rico’s plight.

On Saturday September 23rd, after the hurricane made landfall, Governor Rossello told the Washington Post on September 26th that “Puerto Rico is essentially devastated.”  In a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday, October 19th, Governor Rossello said, “Give the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico the adequate resources, treat us the same as citizens in Texas, in Florida and elsewhere, we will come out of this stronger.” When further pressed by Trump to give the U.S. Government response a grade for performance, the governor demurred, replying, “You responded immediately.” For his part, President Trump rates his government’s action on Puerto Rico “a 10 out of 10,” repeatedly emphasizing the fragile state of the island’s power plant and massive debt before the Sept. 20 storm, which he mentioned again during the oval office meeting with Rossello.

Yet the American citizens on the ground in Puerto Rico are still without power, their homes and schools and hospitals damaged or destroyed. Drinking water and food are still hard to come by. Dr. Raul Hernandez, an internist on the island told CNN that desperate people were drinking water from “whatever sources they could find, including rivers and creeks.” Reports on MSNBC have shown images of residents resorting to drinking contaminated water from closed wells on Superfund sites, rainwater and runoff. While the official death toll in Puerto Rico from the hurricane itself was 10, the number of dead in the days and weeks since the storm continues to rise. Desperate people drinking contaminated water has led to an outbreak of Leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics but which can be fatal without treatment. CDC officials are monitoring this situation from which Puerto Rico has already estimated and confirmed some 76 cases, including a handful of deaths, according to Dr. Carmen Deseda, the state epidemiologist for the island.

Reports surfaced this week on CBS News and Buzzfeed of 911 deaths in Puerto Rico since Maria classified as “natural causes” deaths, not attributed to the hurricane or its’ aftermath. The Puerto Rican government told BuzzFeed News Friday that it allowed these 911 bodies to be cremated since Hurricane Maria made landfall, and that not one of them were physically examined by a government medical examiner to determine if it should be included in the official death toll. Karixia Ortiz Serrano, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety who was also speaking for the Institute of Forensic Sciences — which is in charge of confirming hurricane deaths stated that the “natural causes” designations were made by reviewing records, not actually examining the bodies. The current official hurricane death toll stands at 51. Twenty of those official deaths were cremations. The death toll has become a critically important indicator of how relief efforts are going — because President Trump made it one. It is also important for families of victims to claim federal relief aid. Deaths attributable to the hurricane in its landfall was relatively low given the magnitude of the storm. However, critics of the president argue that deaths since the hurricane were preventable, and are therefore a scathing indictment of the mismanagement and failure to act by U.S. Government emergency response officials. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democratic lawmaker from Massachusetts on Tuesday stated, “The Trump Administration needs to cooperate with Puerto Rican authorities and provide all the necessary resources to ensure the death toll is accurately counted.”

You might be wondering how to help.

According to The Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI), which is part of the US Agency for International Development, donating money is almost almost the best way to give aid. Before sending material goods (like blankets, food, or toys), the CIDI recommends confirming with relief organizations there is a real need for them. If you want to assist in person, nonprofits both international and local are looking for volunteers. Below you’ll find a list of reputable Puerto Rico-based charity organizations to donate to, followed by larger nonprofits that operate on a national or global scale.

Unidos, by the Hispanic Federation          

If you buy Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song “Almost Like Praying” the money you spend will be donated towards helping the victims of hurricane Maria.

Note: It is not clear whether all these organizations will spend 100% of donations received on hurricane relief and associated expenses. But in past large-scale disasters, they have given high percentages of donations directly to victims, especially if there is a specific fund set up. To avoid scams, it’s always good to research a group before donating by checking scores from independents groups like Charity Navigator and Charity Watch.