Rise Up

It's 2018, and Puerto Rico is Still Dealing With the Fallout from Hurricane Maria

People in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands attempting to get back on their feet and rebuild their islands should not have to worry about evictions, late fees, negative credit reports or any other financial burdens due to no fault of their own.

by Alice Rowsome
Jan 4 2018, 4:30pm

Image via Getty Images

If you hear a lot of ruckus over here it’s because we are eleven minutes past midnight in San Juan Puerto Rico. I don’t know where everyone has gotten these firecrackers from! We are very happy to leave 2017 behind,” Carmen Yulín Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico told BBC World Service on January 1. Despite the sound of the firecrackers, she explained that it had been hard to celebrate when more than one-in-seven Puerto Ricans had left the island (that's around half a million Puerto Ricans). And one-in-two of those remaining still did not have access to energy.

It’s been more than three months since Hurricane María, the fifth-strongest storm ever to hit the U.S., a powerful Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds, made direct landfall on Puerto Rico, splitting the entire island in two and drowning it with over a feet of rain. But a full recovery is still years away for devastated Puerto Rico.

As of January 1, only a little more than 60 percent of Puerto Rico’s power had been restored. It is the longest blackout in U.S. history and has even been given a name by locals: “Apagón” (translated as “super outage”). It impacts residents’ access to clean water and healthcare, but also education and work.

The lack of water, energy and food, which has plagued Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the hurricane has triggered an important exodus. More than 239,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida since October 3, according to figures from Florida’s State Emergency Response Team. It is the largest evacuation on this scale in the history of the state.

“People in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands attempting to get back on their feet and rebuild their islands should not have to worry about evictions, late fees, negative credit reports or any other financial burdens they may now be experiencing due to no fault of their own.”

And it’s set to get worse. The GOP tax bill, which worked its way through Congress before Christmas treats Puerto Rico as a “foreign jurisdiction” (Puerto Rico is a domestic jurisdiction in U.S. law — except for tax purposes). It is a devastating caveat to the law — that lawmakers refused to change — for Puerto Ricans (who are U.S. citizens).


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“It will wreck what’s left of Puerto Rico’s economy,” wrote Armando Valdés Prieto, former director Puerto Rico's Office of Management and Budget in The Washington Post. Residents will now be exposed to a 20 percent import tax on products sold to mainland U.S. and a 12.5 percent tax on profits derived from intellectual property, which make up 47 percent of Puerto Rico’s GDP. At risk: tens of thousands of jobs.

Senator Bernie Sanders, backed by Yulín Cruz and the many grassroots campaigns who stepped in following the hurricane, has estimated that $146 billion is needed to sustainably rebuild the island in a bill dubbed the ‘Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico’. President Donald Trump has put forward just a fraction of that. Of the $36.5 billion disaster aid package passed by Congress in October, only a percentage is due to go to the island (it is to be divided between Texas, Florida and California too).

While Sanders’ bill — and the much needed $146 billion — is unlikely to get a vote in Congress given the power dynamics on Capitol Hill, a lot more needs and can be done to support Puerto Ricans in 2018.

Of the $36.5 billion disaster aid package passed by Congress in October, only a percentage is due to go to the island.

Here are two critical campaigns relating to healthcare and housing that need your advocacy support.

Healthcare

While the government counted a death toll of 64 in the first 42 days after the storm it turns out to have been a serious undercount. A detailed survey by the New York Times found the death toll to be closer to 1,052 people. The analysis compared the number of deaths declared on the Demographic Registry of Puerto Rico for each day in 2017 with the average of the number of deaths for the same days in 2015 and 2016.

“Before the hurricane, I had an average of 82 deaths daily. That changes from Sept. 20 to 30th. Now I have an average of 118 deaths daily,” Wanda Llovet, the director of the Demographic Registry in Puerto Rico, said in a mid-November interview with the Times.

While the public-health infrastructure has slowly come back online, the lack of regular power and clean water is still affecting the health of Puerto Ricans. Those with chronic health conditions particularly threatened as the on-again-off-again power grid is still affecting vital medical machinery.Doctors on the ground are also reporting an increase in respiratory concerns as mould from damaged homes has started to impact patients with mild to severe respiratory issues. Mental and behavioural health has also become — unsurprisingly — a rising concern as residents after months of insecurity have begun to lose hope.

Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s residents rely on Medicaid capped by Washington meaning that only 15 to 20 percent of Medicaid in Puerto Rico is funded by federal revenue (it’s 75 percent in Mississippi for example) and the rest by the local government, which is itself already bankrupt. What does this mean? Experts have warned that 25 percent of the island’s residents are at risk of being without medical care early this year.

Families USA, a group dedicated to the achievement of high-quality, affordable health care and improved health for all, as well as more than 100 other community, provider, labor, and patient organizations wrote a letter urging Congress to:

  • Take immediate action to address the post-hurricane health crises in Puerto Rico
  • Temporarily increase the federal Medicaid matching rate for Puerto Rico
  • Fully reimburse states who host evacuees for Medicaid costs; and
  • Simplify the process of applying for Medicaid for people from U.S.

You can send this letter to your own representative or contact them below to tell them that you care about Puerto Rican’s healthcare financing issues too:

Housing

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are at risk of losing their homes and having their life savings wiped out. About one-out-of-three of the island’s 425,000 homeowners are behind on their mortgage payments to banks and Wall Street firms (including Roosevelt Cayman Asset Company, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs) that had previously bought up distressed mortgages. In fact, if the current numbers hold, Puerto Rico is headed for a foreclosure epidemic that could rival what happened in Detroit in 2008, where there were almost as many abandoned homes as occupied one.

“2017 hit us with everything, but we are still standing...Come on 2018!”

“People in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands attempting to get back on their feet and rebuild their islands should not have to worry about evictions, late fees, negative credit reports or any other financial burdens they may now be experiencing due to no fault of their own,” wrote four senators — Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican; Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat; Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat; and Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat — to officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Donald H. Layton.

A moratorium by HUD has been put in place but is set to expire on March 18, 2018. These four senators are asking for it to be extended until March 31, 2018. You can send your own representative this letter, or contact them above to let them know how you feel.

“2017 hit us with everything,” Mayor Yulín Cruz said on Twitter, “but we are still standing...Come on 2018!”