In the aftermath of the 2017 hurricane season, which devastated United States territories Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, more than five thousand projects were earmarked to receive federal recovery money. Two years later, the money has stalled, with fewer than 500 projects funded.
“We are in the same situation as we were in the days after the hurricane,” Rafael Surillo Ruiz, the mayor of Yabucoa in Puerto Rico, told The New York Times. Throughout Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, hospitals are still shut down, with patients receiving care in trailers, and roads and other infrastructure remain in disrepair. Reports The Times:
An examination of Federal Emergency Management Agency data and records demonstrates the degree to which the recovery from Hurricanes Maria and Irma on America’s Caribbean islands has been stalled compared with some of the most disaster-prone states on the mainland, leaving the islands’ critical infrastructure in squalor and limbo. FEMA officials say 190 long-term recovery projects have been funded in Puerto Rico—out of more than 9,000 requests. On the United States Virgin Islands, about 218 projects had funding—out of more than 1,500 requests and still counting.
In contrast, about 3,700 large and small permanent work projects had obligated funding in Texas, two years after Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast in August 2017. More than 3,700 such projects had been funded over that time in Florida.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about the life and the well-being of human beings,” Dyma Williams, the acting chief executive at the Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix, told The Times in an interview. “I hate to make the distinction about American versus not American, but at the end of the day, we’re not being treated the same way as other Americans are being treated.”
In an interview with The Times, Jeffrey Byard, the associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery at FEMA, responded by saying, “Comparing disasters misleads the American people. Each event has a unique set of circumstances, and numbers alone cannot and do not provide a complete picture of what is needed to help communities recover.”
After major disasters, the FEMA public assistance program is tasked with helping communities recover by removing debris, reconstructing public infrastructure and other measures. But The Times reports that there is little evidence that much has been done beyond debris removal.
In response to the time it is taking to complete recovery projects, Congress ruled last year that FEMA can waive certain requirements—like needing to assess the condition of the existing facilities—to rebuild infrastructure on the islands, including hospitals and schools.
Alongside issues with FEMA funding, President Donald Trump has continued to make disparaging remarks about Puerto Rico’s elected officials’ ability to handle recovery. These include saying they were “grossly incompetent” and “their government can’t do anything right, the place is a mess—nothing works.” He has also erroneously stated that more money has gone to the island’s recovery efforts than any other American natural disaster.
“From day one, right after Maria hit Puerto Rico, there has been a different standard for how the administration responded to Harvey and Irma,” Representative Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), told The Times in an interview.
The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, agreed. She told the Times that she deduced that the only reason recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have been so slow is because the victims were people of color. She said, “You can kill people with a gun or you can kill them with neglect.”