On the eve of the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was hit again by Fiona, a category one storm. Sadly, many Puerto Ricans find themselves again without water, electricity and other basic services. Some may ask, how is this possible? Didn’t Puerto Rico receive millions in federal aid after Maria for its dilapidated infrastructure? Those are simple questions with complicated answers.
Hurricane Fiona is the latest episode in a series of events that unfolded in the last five years, including the removal of then-Gov. Ricardo Rossello in the summer of 2019 after the crude content of a private group chat that he was in was leaked. Also in the mix, allegations of public corruption, seismic activity and the COVID-19 pandemic. Then Fiona hit, exposing to the world
—again — the fragility of an island home to 3.2 million American citizens.
Even though Congress approved over $68 billion for reconstruction after Maria, only about 30 percent of that has been disbursed to date and just a fraction of that has been spent as projects are still in their infancy. Most of the funds released, are earmarked for emergency aid, not for undertakings like the much-needed revamp of the electrical grid. The slow pace of the reconstruction efforts suggests a lack of urgency that is incomprehensible in the face of continuous and extreme weather events fueled by climate change. Five years later, the island has become a perennial disaster zone.
Most Puerto Ricans agree there are two pressing issues that need to be resolved for the reconstruction of the island to take place and its future secured: the lack of trust in government and growing social inequalities.
As we watch the government’s response to Fiona, it is hard not to be reminded of how slow the Puerto Rican and federal authorities were to act after Maria. Islanders were left to fend for themselves. Some communities reported not receiving any government help for two months, on an island that is 100 miles long. That was aggravated by a fiscal crisis and a federal government-imposed board which carried out drastic austerity measures. Simply put, Puerto Ricans are paying higher taxes for much less. The government’s move to privatize essential services such as transportation and electricity with lax oversight and accountability has resulted in sky-high rates with no apparent improvements to services or infrastructure.
Now, a few days after Fiona, Puerto Ricans find themselves struggling for the most basic human necessities. In an atmosphere of eroding public trust, the people of Puerto Rico simply want less words and more action. The trust in government is so fractured that residents requests for disaster relief come with an explicit demand not to donate supplies to the government.
The growing gap between the haves and the have-nots adds insult to injury. Privatization efforts have accelerated social inequalities. Those at the top have the resources to absorb the rising costs and access privileged communities with reliable solar energy systems. Policies to lure investors and millionaires to the island by creating a tax haven are displacing the locals at home, resulting in a high percentage of people living in poverty and more vulnerable to natural disasters. Indeed, Hurricane Fiona had a greater impact on socially vulnerable communities in the southern, central, and southwestern areas of the island. Fiona is an opportunity for government officials, both in the island and in Washington, to rebuild trust by communicating clearly and often about what it will take to rebuild and how that massive task will be tackled.
To reduce inequality, there has to be an approach that prioritizes necessities: a 21st-century electrical grid, improvements to hospitals, schools and road systems, as well as other basic infrastructure. Without these, a revitalization of the local economy is not possible. These efforts must be supported by Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. We need to show up and vote en masse for leaders who care about Puerto Rico and not just with lip service, while also supporting with time and money nonprofits and private groups working on Puerto Rican issues. Reducing inequality and building trust is the pathway for a sustainable and favorable future for Puerto Rico.
Fernando Rivera is a UCF professor and director of UCF’s Puerto Rico Research Hub.