There has been so much speculation about the Trump administration’s response to the most devastating natural disaster in Puerto Rico since hurricane San Felipe crisscrossed the island in 1928. While it is understandable that our constituents are impatient and remain shell-shocked by Hurricane Maria’s fury and the road toward recovery, the vast majority of Americans in Puerto Rico are grateful and optimistic about the future.
This sentiment is predominantly anchored in the rapid response of the federal agencies pre- and post-storm. To say otherwise is to play politics or, worse, to dabble in partisan deception to further personal agendas. Of the agencies that have taken part in rebuilding Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is the one I’ll single out after an experience that reconfirmed that local leadership at the municipal level is a must in order for FEMA’s mission to succeed.
First, it is important to contextualize how long it has been since our island last saw something akin to Hurricane Maria. The last time we found ourselves in such a humanitarian quagmire, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was about to be elected governor of New York, Adolf Hitler was a political aspirant in Germany, commercial aviation was a newly regulated enterprise, and Puerto Ricans had been made U.S. citizens a mere decade before.
Recently, I visited the town of Patillas after being informed of the potential mishandling of FEMA’s supplies delivered for the roughly the town’s 20,000 citizens. Patillas sits in the southeast, where Maria made landfall. Few words can convey my feelings when seeing hundreds of FEMA boxed meals and bottled water inside a large dumpster, exposed to rain and rodents, and vermin. While thousands are in need of these basic necessities, supplies, timely and efficiently delivered by FEMA, go to waste because of negligent, and perhaps criminal, conduct by local leaders. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has already made it clear that such behavior will have legal consequences. Moreover, additional measures have been implemented to guarantee that aid gets where, when and to those in need.
Reviewing the aid provided by the federal government, specifically by FEMA, under the steady leadership of Administrator Brock Long, reveals that Washington’s response has and will be there for the U.S. citizens residing on the island. While numbers and statistics cannot convey information in the same manner as language or passionate political rhetoric, they simply do not lie. Data is available and verifiable. Long has personally verified his corps’ performance through his various visits to Puerto Rico during this emergency. Just like any other government entity, FEMA, in the past, may have performed both under and over par, it has excelled in a summer rivaled by few in terms of natural emergencies across the nation.
At present, FEMA, in coordination with other federal agencies hands out about 600,000 meals and 742,000 liters of water a day. It has conducted more than 700 airdrops in isolated areas of the island; removed 10,000 cubic yards of debris (which would fill Yankee stadium seven times over); and distributed some 42,000 tarps. To date, there are 17,000 federal employees throughout the island, 2,000 medical staff, and 750 pharmacies providing medicine, free of charge, under the emergency prescription-assistance program.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has purchased 50,000 poles and 6,500 miles of cable to restore our electric grid. More than 640,000 citizens have signed up for assistance and have received at least $87 million in aid. Some 6,100 citizens have received medical attention by first responders and, on a positive note, the first baby girl after Maria was born on board the USS Comfort. Her name is Sara Victoria. Sara, from the Hebrew root for “princess” and Victoria, from the Latin root for “conquer”.
Puerto Rico will emerge brighter than before. Make no mistake about it. And we will do so, hand in hand, with our federal brethren, who have been bearing the brunt and weathering the winds and rain next to us since Day One. As a proud American, for that I am grateful.
Luis G. Rivera-Marín is lieutentant governor and secretary of state of Puerto Rico.