February 1, 2017
Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the inconsistent FEMA response to Puerto Rico’s human, physical, and fiscal challenges.
Post Storm Fiscal & Physical Misery. Less than 24 hours after Puerto Ricans were alarmed to learn that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) intended to halt emergency aid shipments of food and water to the devastated U.S. territory, FEMA has announced it is not planning to leave; nor will the federal disaster assistance agency stop handing out crucial supplies; FEMA made clear it intends to continue the distribution of some 46 million liters of water and four million meals and snacks—an amount FEMA believes should be sufficient to allow Puerto Rico to recover—an assessment with which Puerto Rico Secretary of Public Safety and state coordinating officer Hector Pesquera concurred yesterday, after, earlier, making clear Puerto Rico’s emergency management leaders had not been “informed that supplies would stop arriving, nor did the government of Puerto Rico agree with this action.” Nonetheless, the resumption after the inexplicable interruption, still appears insufficient to assess whether the aid which FEMA has stockpiled will suffice: Jorge Pratts, a full-time volunteer with Operation Blessing, who oversees the US nonprofit’s operations in Puerto Rico, noted: “The numbers just don’t add up.” His organization, so far, has distributed 35,000 water filters since Hurricane Maria hit. From a personal perspective, he added: “The cry for help comes from fathers and mothers, people in their 60s, 70s and 80s…It’s a very, very delicate situation that we’re going through. FEMA is not being sensitive at all, and they’re not understanding what’s going on here.”
His perspective was echoed by Mayor Ernesto Irizarry of Utuado, known by its residents as “El Pueblo del Viví,” which was founded in 1739 by Sebastían de Morfi—the pueblo or muncipio’s name is derived from a local Indian Chief Otoao, which means between mountains, reflecting the municipio’s location in Puerto Rico’s Central Mountains. The muncipio has a population of about 33,000 today, spread across 113 square miles—the median age is 38. The per capita income is what gives one a more acute perspective of the human and fiscal challenges left in Maria’s wake: In 2013, the average per capita income was $7,235—some 30% below Puerto Rico’s average; more than 55% are below the poverty line. It is in the part of Puerto Rico where Hurricane Maria wreaked the greatest human, physical, and fiscal damage, devastating bridges and isolating communities for weeks—leaving the municipality, as Mayor Irizarry describes it‒still very dependent on FEMA’s relief aid, noting that 71% of the 33,000 residents do not have power, and more than 30% do not have clean water. Even though Mayor Irizarry believes his muncipio has enough supplies to last about another week, he fears that if FEMA’s stockpile in Puerto Rico runs out, his municipality would likely face a “humanitarian crisis: Utuado is not in recovery mode…We are still in disaster mode, because we don’t have access to basic services.”