Let’s acknowledge these tough realities: Puerto Rico was indeed bankrupted by crushing debt even before Hurricane Maria struck it with catastrophic force. As Bloomberg News reported last month, first Irma and then Maria struck only months “after the island’s government sought protection from creditors in the nation’s largest municipal insolvency.”
And yes, the U.S. territory’s infrastructure was already frayed. And, yes, its mountainous terrain has made relief efforts more difficult. Moving supplies and people into remote areas that have been cut off because access roads and bridges no longer exist is challenging, if not impossible.
But Puerto Rico is part of the United States. Its residents are American citizens. And we cannot abandon our fellow Americans in their time of dire need.
The hurricane’s death toll has been put at 49, and more than 100 are listed as missing. Some of the deaths were due to a bacterial infection called leptospirosis.
The Washington Post reported that a 61-year-old bus driver named Jorge Antonio Sanyet Morales “took a drink from a stream near his concrete home on a hillside in Canovanas a week after the Sept. 20 storm. He then developed a fever, his skin turned yellow and within a week, he died at a hospital in Carolina, according to his widow, Maritza Rivera.”
More than a third of island residents still don’t have access to drinkable water.
Only 16 percent of Puerto Rico’s residents have electricity, the Department of Defense said earlier this week. It’s been three weeks since Maria made landfall on the island.
“The U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our Nation,” tweeted Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello on Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican whose district covers most of Lancaster County, visited Puerto Rico on Saturday to see the devastation for himself.
“Everywhere that we went we could see the damage from the hurricane. It was pretty sobering to see,” Smucker told LNP staff writer Tom Knapp during a telephone interview Monday. “Every area of the island was impacted. ... Literally, the entire island.”
We would hope these images remain fresh in Smucker’s mind when he makes the case for a long-term solution to Puerto Rico’s recovery.
“It’s going to take long-term funding from Congress,” Smucker said, “and long-term aid. ... We’re going to have to stay committed to doing that.”
Yes, we will. And we urge Smucker to lead the effort. But we’re more than a little concerned by the president’s recent statements.
Puerto Rico is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Yes, the island was in no shape to deal with a major hurricane. But the focus should be on the reality on the ground, a reality that Smucker called “heartbreaking.”
This is no time to threaten to pull the plug on aid.
As Smucker pointed out, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. military are working with local officials to distribute meals and water and to restore power. According to FEMA, earlier this month, more than 10,000 federal officials were on the ground on the island.
Still, getting help to the people who need it, which is just about everyone who calls the island home, has been a painstakingly slow process. Smucker called the relief effort “fairly effective.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., plans to visit Puerto Rico today with a small bipartisan group, including the chairman and top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee that signs off on spending legislation. (The House of Representatives passed a $36.5 billion aid package Thursday to help people in areas, including Puerto Rico, recovering from hurricanes and wildfires.)
Ryan and his colleagues will see what Smucker saw — Puerto Rico is fighting for survival.
What the island’s residents — many of whom have ties to Lancaster County — need now from our government, in addition to material aid, is to know they will not be abandoned.
They also need Congress to pass legislation sponsored by Republican Sens. John McCain and Mike Lee to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, which restricts foreign vessels from delivering food, fuel and other supplies to the island. It also greatly raises the prices of goods that come from the U.S. mainland.
President Trump suspended the Jones Act for Puerto Rico for a mere 10 days. The island needs to be freed from the stranglehold of this act, which McCain calls “antiquated” and “protectionist.”
Focusing on what happened prior to Maria’s landfall does nothing to address the island’s current and desperate circumstances. The people there need our help now and in the future.
In the meantime, you will pardon the people of Puerto Rico for not thinking about “forever.” Getting to tomorrow will be difficult enough.