Politics of Poverty

Puerto Rico comes to Washington

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Oxfam staff and partners met with Congressman Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) (center), as well as his Chief of Staff, and Deputy Chief of Staff, while bringing the concerns about stalled recovery efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria – six months ago. (Photo: Carmen Orozco-Acosta/Oxfam America)

Two intrepid Oxfam partners from Puerto Rico braved the cold and snow in Washington DC last week to bring news of what it’s really like on the island for hundreds of thousands of US citizens struggling to recover and rebuild.

When Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September 2017, Oxfam paid close attention to the emergency response and recovery efforts, and was dismayed as the US federal government dragged its feet.  Eventually, we sprang into action. Along with our efforts to distribute vital supplies such as water filters and solar lights, we also took to Capitol Hill, where we urged Congress to provide adequate, equitable, and useful resources to the people of Puerto Rico.

Six months later, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are still far from recovery, and are still suffering. Across the island, families are trying to get back to normal, but many lack power, water, roofs, and jobs. Moreover, many have faced continuous roadblocks in receiving adequate financial assistance, despite applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid.

And that’s why we once again made our way to Capitol Hill on March 19 and 20, with two outstanding Puerto Rican leaders, Adi Martinez-Roman and Amaris Torres-Rivera, from the Access to Justice Fund Foundation. Both have worked on the ground to help disaster survivors get the aid they need.  They have coordinated dozens of pop-up legal aid clinics across the island, helping people navigate the bureaucratic delays and opaque processes in applying for financial assistance, and shepherding them through the arduous appeals process.

Together, we presented an advocacy agenda to help Puerto Rico in its recovery.

Our advocacy asks to Congress included:

  • Full funding for the recovery and rebuilding effort;
  • Rapid consideration and passage of the Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act of 2018 (Sponsored by Rep. Espaillat);
  • Requirements and monitoring to and ensure that federal disaster response and recovery dollars are used effectively, equitably and responsibly; and
  • Prioritization of locally-led emergency response and recovery
Adi Martinez-Roman (right) joined a Hispanic Federation meeting with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) (left). Seated next to Martinez-Roman is Laura M. Esquivel, Director of National Advocacy for Hispanic Federation. (Photo: Carmen Orozco-Acosta / Oxfam America)

In several meetings on the Hill, Martinez-Roman and Torres-Rivera  met with key decision makers in Congress — including Member-level meetings with Senator Nelson (D-FL), Representative Espaillat (D-NY), and Representative Velazquez (D-NY) — as well as with staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). We dove into the weeds about the FEMA aid application process, urging greater accountability and transparency.

In a meeting with Rep. Velazquez, one of the key House champions for Puerto Rico, Martinez-Roman talked about the arbitrary nature of the way FEMA accepted (or refused) proof of home ownership or residency, despite detailed FEMA criteria. Rep. Velazquez promised to follow-up with a letter to FEMA, questioning the inconsistent application of their guidance.

Likewise, Torres-Rivera described to the Senate Homeland Committee staff and the House Natural Resources staff (which has oversight over FEMA and Puerto Rico as a territory, respectively), the astounding lack of transparency from FEMA officials at all levels.  She recounted stories of housing inspectors examining homes and submitting their reports to FEMA, without providing any copies of the details to the homeowners; so they had little ability to dispute the claims.

In a nearly two-hour meeting with HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary Stanley Gimont and Jessie Handforth Kome, two individuals in charge of granting over $14 billion in housing disaster aid to Puerto Rico through the Community Development Block Grant, Torres-Rivera  and Martinez-Roman expressed their concern that the money could be given to select developers instead of helping those most vulnerable.  They insisted that local communities and non-profits be given a meaningful voice in determining how the money is used.

The day also included a meeting with Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), who is planning to introduce a bill to help Puerto Rico disaster victims who cannot get FEMA aid because they lack formal documentation (including deeds or leases to their homes).

While Puerto Rico has faded from regular headlines, the six-month mark is both a stark reminder – and an urgent clarion call. In fact, the next hurricane season is right around the corner, and those who are still living under tarps and without access to power or water are staring at grave potential danger from high winds and flooding.

As our partners have returned home, we will double down on our commitment to them: We’ll follow up with Members of Congress, remind them of the stories, and do our part to ensure the people of Puerto Rico are not forgotten.

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