Puerto Rico’s Disaster Response: 

Puerto Rico’s Disaster Response: 

5 Years After Hurricane María

On September 18, 2022, Hurricane Fiona, a category one (1) hurricane, hit Puerto Rico after almost exactly five (5) years following the category five (5) landfall of Hurricane María. Even though Hurricane Fiona was a category one (1) storm, it left the entire island without power and water for varying lengths of time, given the island’s precarious infrastructure and unfinished and ongoing recovery from Hurricane María. To this day, there are still service interruptions of these basic essentials – water and power.  Disaster response has been indeed questioned by many and even though funds have been appropriated by Congress, disbursement has been delayed and ultimately assistance has not reached those who continue to be in need. 

Before diving into the discussion around disaster response following both Hurricane María and Hurricane Fiona, I would like to remind our readers that Hurricane María was not the first, most destructive hurricane in the history of Puerto Rico. On August 8, 1899, Hurricane San Ciriaco devastated the island following twenty-eight (28) straight days of rain and winds of approximately 150 miles per hour. It was estimated that roughly 3,400 people died due to Hurricane San Ciriaco and thousands were left without shelter, food and/or work given extensive farmland destruction, which at that time was critical for the economy in Puerto Rico. I mention Hurricane San Ciriaco because it was an interesting time in history and, as Winston Churchill said: “[t]hose that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” On July 25, 1898, the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, which was declared by the U.S. on April 25, 1898. Spain ceded Puerto Rico, along with Guam and the Philippines, to the U.S. on December 10, 1898 through the Treaty of Paris.

San Ciriaco was the first experience the U.S. had managing the island following a devastating natural disaster.  Atmospheric events of most significance that followed throughout the years included, but are not limited to, Hurricane San Ciprian in 1932, Hurricane Hugo in 1989 (after almost one hundred (100) years following Hurricane San Ciriaco mentioned above), and Hurricane Georges, which made landfall in 1998, leaving Puerto Rico once again in precarious conditions with a long recovery.  Weather events, such as hurricanes, in Puerto Rico are not new to the U.S. and, as we also see in some parts of the mainland, the island’s infrastructure has deteriorated over time with no proper maintenance performed following these natural disasters. As weather events seem to be intensifying throughout time, recovery efforts appear to be taking longer as well on top of a debilitated infrastructure.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”)

The U.S. Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) opened a review in March 2019 after receiving a congressional request to investigate alleged delays on disbursement of approximately twenty $20 billion dollars Congress had approved in HUD funds for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Irma and Hurricane María for post-hurricane reconstruction. OIG examined: (1) the effects the 2018 and 2019 government shutdown had on the disbursement of the funds; (2) HUD’s decision-making process; and (3) whether undue influence also permeated in officials. The OIG’s report was published on April 20, 2021.  Additional information may be found here: Review of HUD’s Disbursement of Grant Funds Appropriated for Disaster Recovery and Mitigation Activities in Puerto Rico. 

Trump, Biden and HUD

Additional requirements and restrictions were imposed during the Trump administration on how Puerto Rico could gain access to the funds, purportedly given to concerns around historical corruption and financial mismanagement in the island. On April 2021, HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge said in a statement: “Puerto Rico needs to recover from past disasters and build resilience to future storms, while ensuring transparency and accountability…[w]e are committed to an ongoing partnership with Puerto Rico to empower the island’s communities and help them build back better.”

According to Fudge, President Biden eliminated restrictions requiring incremental grant obligations, a federal financial monitor to supervise the aid and additional oversight from the federally imposed financial oversight board, established by PROMESA in 2016.

Building back a sustainable tropical island

As previously mentioned, devastating atmospheric events are not new in Puerto Rico or to the U.S. government, which is responsible for a territory that continues to be, in the 21st Century, under its governance and reliance for financial assistance in a crisis. Providing funding to the island and/or emergency assistance, is just an initial measure to sustainably build back infrastructure for a better Puerto Rico. There are many other considerations that need to be taken into account, such as the type of materials being used when re-building and/or repairing the infrastructure of the island, meticulous engineering and architectural review of roads, buildings, and overall public and private infrastructure, shifting the power grid to renewable energy such as solar, and many other matters that need attention for the island to flourish and stand atmospheric events that are just part of the geographic region Puerto Rico sits in our common house known as Earth.  

In addition, it is very telling that even though Puerto Rico has been part of the U.S. since 1898, the U.S. government has not learned from past experiences and has failed to take swift action to assist and rebuild Puerto Rico as needed. Puerto Rico has the human resources, both in intellect and skill, in order to work towards a sustainable island. However, the question still stands will the U.S. government provide the financial resources to Puerto Rico in order to make the improvements needed to achieve such objective. 

Please note that this blog should be read for informational purposes only.  If you have any questions or require additional information, please contact our office.

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