Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Leaving Puerto Rico—in good hands

Posted by
Adi and Amaris
Adi Martínez Román (left), who is now co-director of Right to Democracy, and Amaris Torres Rivera, now executive director of Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, shown mapping their interventions across the territory in 2018. The Fundación provided legal aid to survivors of Hurricanes Maria and Irma. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

The hurricanes of 2017 revealed Puerto Rico’s vulnerability—and the strength of its local organizations.

When Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico in 2017, the islands were devastated. Floods and storm surges destroyed more than 300,000 homes, and the territory’s power and water systems collapsed—and stayed collapsed for months on end. The exact number of deaths is still unknown, but it is thought to be more than 4,000.

In no time, local organizations were kicking into gear, doing their best to fill the yawning gaps left by local and national governments.

While Oxfam doesn’t normally engage in humanitarian responses in wealthy countries, the sheer magnitude of this disaster combined with the slow and inadequate FEMA response led us to make exceptions after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. But rather than send in teams with supplies and a mission, we set out to partner with local groups—supporting each of them to do what it does best.

We never regretted that choice.

Oxfam’s funding for Puerto Rico programs has come to an end, and on March 31, we will close our doors. But Puerto Rico continues to be a source of learning about the importance and realities of ensuring that local organizations—in coordination with local governments—have the opportunity to take leadership at times of disaster.


It often happens in disasters that the local organizations that spring into action don’t think of themselves as emergency responders until suddenly they are.

In Puerto Rico, that was very much the case. Groups like Casa Pueblo, a climate-justice organization, pivoted quickly and was soon installing solar arrays in vulnerable communities in the central mountains. The legal-aid organizations Ayuda Legal and Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, much of whose work addresses housing issues, shifted their focus to the housing rights of people displaced by the storm. Puerto Rico has a long history of feminist activism and a strong network of feminist organizations that includes Proyecto Matria, Kilometro 0, and Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer. They set about securing shelters for displaced gender-diverse communities and organizing bus caravans to evaluate risks and deliver services and in hard-to-reach places, and they advocated for funding to address housing, safety, and hunger issues.

These groups brought everything to the table, including relationships with community leaders and officials, geographical knowledge, and understanding of housing and environmental laws.

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes, Oxfam funded the work of more than 25 local organizations, to support their work and to help build strong networks so that local groups could take the lead in responding to these and future disasters.


As Oxfam prepares to depart, I feel both worried and hopeful. Worried that the combination of the climate crisis and deepening inequality will continue to undermine the ability of low-income families to thrive or even survive in the face of future weather events. And hopeful that experienced organizations such as the ones we’ve partnered with will continue to mitigate the suffering, and make their voices heard as advocates for reducing disaster risks and for gender, economic, and climate justice.

To ease the impact of future hazards, local organizations need to be active long after the flow of emergency funds dry up. In other words, they need long-term funding. Organizations like Filanthropía, which functions as a bridge between US supporters and local Puerto Rican organizations, can help make that happen, but to create the climate for giving, there needs to be much greater awareness of the breadth and depth of inequality in Puerto Rico. Of how that places countless communities and families at needless risk, and of how essential the role is of local nongovernmental organizations who are tackling its causes and symptoms and mitigating those risks.

It is only a matter of time before the next catastrophic storm sweeps across the islands leaving wreckage in its wake.

Funders—now is the time to act.