FEMA’s Hurricane Aid to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Has Stalled

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Mark Walker and Zolan Kanno-Youngs (The New York Times) report on the serious shortcomings of FEMA’s hurricane aid to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, in particular, St. Croix.

Two years after Hurricanes Maria and Irma, records show the agency’s work on long-term recovery on the islands is crawling compared with some states on the mainland.

More than two years after back-to-back hurricanes ravaged this tropical island, medical workers are still treating gunshot wounds in hallways and kidney failure in a trailer. They ignore their own inflamed rashes that they say are caused by the mold that has shut down an entire hospital floor below a still-porous roof.

At least they have a hospital. The lone medical center on Vieques, an idyllic island that is part of Puerto Rico, was severely damaged by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, then abandoned to wandering roosters and grazing horses. Ailing people wait at the ferry dock to catch a boat to the mainland.

[. . .] 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.

That disparity underscored how a federal government in Washington has treated citizens on the mainland, with voting representatives in Congress and a say in presidential contests, compared with citizens on the islands. Further complicating the recovery are issues of corruption, often amplified by President Trump and, islanders say, questions of race. “At the end of the day, we’re talking about the life and the well-being of human beings,” said Dyma Williams, the acting chief executive at the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix. “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.”

Jeffrey Byard, the associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery at FEMA, said the agency had never seen recovery efforts like those from the natural disasters of 2017, which included Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma, as well as wildfires in California. “Comparing disasters misleads the American people,” he said. “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.”

FEMA, through its public assistance program, helps communities recover from major disasters by assisting with debris removal, lifesaving emergency protective measures and public infrastructure reconstruction. Debris removal and protective measures are classified as emergency work. The “permanent work” of public infrastructure repair is what guarantees long-term recovery.

And that permanent work is in little evidence on St. Croix and in Puerto Rico.

“When you’re living on an island and you don’t have a voice on decisions that are made, that tends to happen to you,” said Yves Abraham, the principal of St. Croix’s hard-hit Central High School. “Who do you gripe to? All we can do is sit and wait.”

FEMA officials say much of the problem lies with the system that Washington uses to pay for recovery assistance. Local governments or charities usually front the money to at least begin construction and then are reimbursed by FEMA. But the islands have seen a sluggish economic recovery after the hurricanes. “Because of the fiscal challenges and their situation financially, they don’t have the funding or access to loans,” said Chris Currie, the director of the Government Accountability Office team that studies disaster relief. “So they are completely reliant on FEMA.”

[. . .] Almost from the beginning, relief funds have been caught in Trump-era politics, with freighted charges coming from Democrats and the White House. “From Day 1, right after Maria hit Puerto Rico, there has been a different standard for how the administration responded to Harvey and Irma,” said Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, Democrat of New York and the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the House. She grew emotional as she described her trip to Vieques this month; her own sister had no power for 13 months.

The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who personally clashed with the president, said she had searched for the answer for why the recovery effort in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands had been so slow and could come up with only one: Those places were treated with no sense of urgency because the victims were people of color.

“You can kill people with a gun or you can kill them with neglect,” Ms. Cruz said.

Some officials on the islands conceded that they bore some responsibility; they have struggled to retain local staff and have had difficulty with the paperwork needed to assess hurricane damage.

Mr. Byard referred to what he called Puerto Rico’s “history of fiscal mismanagement of U.S. taxpayer dollars.” Mr. Trump has complained often about waste and fraud, especially in Puerto Rico, where the governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló, resigned in July amid a popular uprising driven by decades of mismanagement.

[. . .] In their criticism of Puerto Rico, White House aides pointed to 375 public corruption convictions between 2008 and 2017, but that figure was driven largely by a federal investigation into its police force in 2011. During the same time frame, Texas had almost 1,000 public corruption convictions.

James Lee Witt, who led FEMA from 1993 through 2001, noted that in September 1995, Hurricane Marilyn struck St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, damaged or destroyed most of the homes, closed the island’s hospital and cut off most communication. FEMA completed what he considered a smooth and fast recovery.

Now, he said, he knows of contractors in the Caribbean who are not being paid and have suspended operations until they are. Others have yet to start. [. . .]

So far, FEMA and other agencies have disbursed about $14 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, out of an estimated $91 billion that will be needed over the next two decades, Mr. Chavez said. Most of that money went toward debris removal, emergency home repairs and restoring power, which took almost a year. [. . .]

The recovery efforts are more visible in the schools of the Virgin Islands, but they are far from where residents thought they would be two years ago. Children on St. Croix attend classes in trailers that from the inside are hard to differentiate from a typical classroom. But school gyms and music halls — some with collapsed roofs, others festering with mold — remain closed. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/27/us/politics/fema-hurricane-aid-puerto-rico-virgin-islands.html?

[Photograph above by Christopher Gregory. The New York Times.]

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