The island of Puerto Rico is internationally renowned for its lush rainforests, magnificent bioluminescent bays, and rich cultural history. In recent years, however, the small Caribbean territory has been prominent in the media due to a series of devastating natural disasters which has brought its infrastructure and economy to the brink of collapse. In the aftermath of these catastrophic events, the international community, most notably the United States, responded by supplying aid which fell far short of the aims suggested by prominent humanitarian rhetoric. Such inequities exacerbated issues within the Puerto Rican government regarding the appropriate distribution of aid funds, severely impacting the ability of the island to successfully continue recovery efforts, let alone prepare for any current or future natural disasters.
Although rarely highlighted by prominent media coverage, grassroots organizations and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been instrumental in filling significant policy gaps left by local government and international aid. The tireless work of these organizations, despite the lack of international recognition, may prove to be the most comprehensive avenue of restoration and development for the island, and certainly deserves consideration as such.
Hurricane Maria and a Lack of Adequate Aid
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the shores of Puerto Rico as a Category 4 event, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without adequate shelter, food, or water in light of island wide power outages and mass flooding. The hurricane is estimated to have caused upwards of 3,000 fatalities, making it one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history. Despite the immediate frenzy of international media coverage and calls for aid, it took 11 months for the island’s power grid to be fully restored — leaving hospitals, schools, and other essential sectors with no electricity needed for vital services. Such an ill-fated delay in restoring the islands’ power grid revealed a myriad of deeper issues regarding international apathy and internal coordination that would continue to negate efforts made to mitigate the catastrophe for years to come.
One of the most disappointing sources of inaccessible funds in the aftermath of the Hurricane Maria disaster came from the United States. Puerto Rico is legally a U.S. territory which holds the islands’ residents, as U.S. citizens, answerable to the full scope of federal jurisdiction– yet neither its representatives in congress, nor these citizens, have any voting rights. This limited degree of sovereignty is justified by the presumed benefits of being a U.S. protectorate, which would ostensibly extend to the provision of adequate aid after natural disasters. In 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump boasted figures of $91 billion dollars in aid being given to Puerto Rico, and denounced the push for more aid provisions. In reality, this supposed $91 billion figure was actually closer to $40 billion in federal allocations, and the process of getting this aid money to communities where it is needed most has been nothing short of a bureaucratic nightmare. This dichotomy of promoted generosity and pragmatic inaction stemming from the U.S. has greatly compounded existing issues with feasible recovery efforts that the island continues to struggle with.
2020 Earthquake and Internal Corruption
On January 7th, 2020 Puerto Rico was struck by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake — an event which its recovering infrastructure and economic systems were entirely unprepared to face. The aftermath of the earthquake was accompanied by a very different type of shockwave — widespread political unrest after a massive scheme of government misappropriation of aid supplies dating back to the Hurricane Maria disaster was uncovered. Governor Wanda Vásquez Garced fired several cabinet members implicated in the scandal, however, serious doubts surrounding her political validity and the continued management of aid funds remain. Such issues shed light on the precarious nature of disaster recovery for the island, raising concerns that even if funds from governments such as the U.S. were to make it past several levels of bureaucratic obstacles, aid may not even be allocated to rightful recipients.
Despite these varying setbacks, the people of Puerto Rico continue to forge a path forward to healing and prosperity while reckoning with disaster fallout, government corruption, and a whole new set of issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout all this, local organizations and NGOs have emerged as the most dedicated advocates of Puerto Rican communities who were entirely overlooked by the government and international assistance. One such organization is Techos Pa’ Mi Gente — an organization founded in the direct aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In the midst of widespread chaos and destruction, the organizations’ founders saw an opportunity to help local communities by installing roofs for hundreds of families who needed protection against the elements. Since its establishment in 2017, Techos Pa’ Mi Gente has expanded its scope to achieve the mission of “trayendo esperanza a Puerto Rico” (bringing hope to Puerto Rico), through the facilitation of fundraisers, training sessions, and workshops for local communities.
This organization, along with hundreds of other local NGOs that operate on the island, rely heavily on the contributions of volunteers, which has become increasingly difficult to organize due to the COVID-19 restrictions. However, there are several alternative avenues of support such as monetary donations and media exposure, through which the international community can augment the tireless efforts of these local organizations. Although official government aid and policy reform will surely be necessary to get the island back on its feet in this time of immense uncertainty, investing in smaller organizations who continue to support local communities is a meaningful and necessary step that the international community can take in order to contribute to the long-term success of Puerto Rico’s recovery.