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Puerto Ricans Aren’t Just Preparing for Hurricane Dorian: 'We’re Preparing for the Government to Fail Us'

Puerto Ricans have little faith that their government will provide any relief after the storm hits.

by Alex Lubben
Aug 28 2019, 7:22pm

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A month ago, Aliana Bigio Alcoba was out in the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico, participating in the protests that ousted the former governor, Ricardo Rosselló. Now, the 21-year-old retail worker is stocking up on supplies as Hurricane Dorian barrels toward the island because she doesn’t trust the new government either.

Like many on the island, Bigio has little faith that either Puerto Rico’s government, now led by Gov. Wanda Vázquez, or the Trump administration will provide relief after the storm hits. Nearly two weeks of demonstrations on the island forced Rosselló to resign, in part over allegations that his administration had mishandled federal funds after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. This time, Puerto Ricans aren’t counting on any help to show up at all.

“We’re making community plans. We’re not waiting for anyone to help us after the storm hits,” Bigio said. “We’ve already seen how that works. No one comes.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, Dorian had grown into a Category 1 hurricane as it skirted the U.S. Virgin Islands and headed to Puerto Rico, with the Bahamas, Barbados, and Florida in its sights. Even as a Category 1 storm (Maria was a Category 4), the high winds and rainfall will test the island’s still-fragile electrical grid, which Maria decimated. More than half of the island’s power utility’s generators weren’t working as of Tuesday, according to Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día.

“We are not simply preparing for another storm; we are preparing for the government to fail us again,” said Lorraine Feliciano, a 22-year-old student at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras.

READ: Puerto Rico just got its third governor in one week. She might not stick around.

The storm is compact and unpredictable — forecasts have veered wildly — and even on Wednesday, Puerto Ricans weren’t certain where it would hit. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that Dorian could strengthen to a Category 3 hurricane before making landfall on Florida’s coast.

Grocery stores were running low on basic supplies as Puerto Ricans flocked to gather necessities in advance of the storm. Bigio said she and her family had stocked up on bottled water, gasoline, and canned food. And there were already reports around midday Wednesday that hundreds of Puerto Ricans were without power.

“We’re preparing more than we’ve ever prepared before,” Bigio said. “I think it’s the whole PTSD of Maria.”

Without trust in the government, the connections that people made during the protests are providing a sense of security. People are sharing supplies and offering shelter — whatever they can to those who worked alongside them to overthrow the Rosselló administration.

“There's a lot of solidarity between people, because no one wants to go back to that dark time that we were at during Hurricane Maria,” said Joshua Manuel Bonet, a 21-year-old from Río Grande, Puerto Rico, who participated in the demonstrations in July.

"We are preparing for the government to fail us again."

The island is still reeling from a brutal 2017 hurricane season. The twin storms in 2017, Irma and Maria, hit the island one after the other. Irma skirted by, causing minimal damage, and when Maria hit Puerto Rico head on, the island wasn’t prepared. Some areas dropped into darkness and stayed there for a full year. At first, not even hospitals knew how many people had died. By the time the death toll was finalized, the official count was just under 3,000. (A 2018 study from Harvard, however, estimated the death toll at about 4,645.)

Gov. Vazquez, at a press conference Monday, insisted that the island was better prepared to weather this storm. She listed off new equipment that the island had amassed — generators, radios, a better-prepared power company — to try to calm fears that Dorian would be another Maria.

But the island still hasn’t completely recovered from Maria. Thousands of homes and structures still haven’t been rebuilt. Congress has allocated about $20 billion for the rebuilding of homes in Puerto Rico, but much of that money hasn’t yet been spent.

“There are so many people who are simply on the street. They have the toldos azules that FEMA put up after Maria, but that’s it,” Bigio said, referring to the 30,000 homes that still have blue tarps on their roofs after Maria.

Despite the persistently dire conditions, President Donald Trump has been railing against the island, even seeming to blame it for being in the path of another storm — and being too corrupt to manage aid dollars.

“Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth,” the president tweeted Wednesday morning. “Their political system is broken and their politicians are either incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!”

“And by the way, I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico!” he added.

The government of Puerto Rico has been embroiled in a number of corruption scandals over the two years since Maria, many of which catalyzed the protests and the resulting change in power. High-ranking officials face criminal charges for steering federal funds, allocated after Maria, toward unqualified but politically connected contractors. And the leaked trove of some 900 pages of text messages between Rosselló and his advisers revealed jokes about feeding dead bodies to crows after the storm.

READ: These Puerto Rican kids are fighting to reopen their school

But Trump also persistently inflates the amount of federal aid dedicated to Puerto Rico after Maria. He tweeted on Tuesday that the island received $92 billion in federal aid. But only $42 billion has been allocated to Puerto Rico, and, of that, only about $14 billion has been spent.

“I’m just tired of his constant hostility against American citizens,” Bonet said. “Maybe he should acknowledge that these storms are strengthened by something called climate change and we can work together against it.”

Victoria Leandra contributed to this report.

Cover image: Citizens stock up on supplies a few hours before the passing of tropical storm Dorian, in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

Tagged:
Donald Trump
PROTESTS
Hurricane
fema
tropical storm
hurricane maria
ricardo rossello
disaster aid
Hurricane Dorian
Wanda Vasquez