Politics of Poverty

Storm clouds gather over an island still reeling

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Descending over San Juan, April 20, 2017: seven months after Hurricane Maria ripped the roofs off 250,000 homes, thousands of families still have only “temporary” blue tarps as roofs. As the 2018 hurricane season begins on June 1, Puerto Ricans are anxiously scanning the skies for signs of the high winds and torrential rain that could demolish the tarps, soak their belongings, and leave them without power or communications . (Photo: Leah Varsano / Oxfam) America

As the 2018 hurricane season begins on June 1, Puerto Ricans are still working to recover and rebuild from the devastating damage of Hurricane Maria. The most vulnerable, who were hit the hardest, are even more threatened this year.

Nearly everyone in Puerto Rico has a harrowing account of September 20, 2017, when Hurricane Maria slammed into the island—and stayed for hours. Families huddled in their homes as the wind churned on and the rain battered down: lights flickered out, communications dropped, water stopped running, roofs flew off, windows exploded, and the streets filled with downed trees and power lines.

In the shattered quiet aftermath, people emerged to assess the damage, and the long hard work began. And it’s not over yet. Thousands of people still don’t have power, or reliable access to clean water; blue tarps serve as roofs on countless homes.

This means, as the 2018 hurricane season begins today, June 1, Puerto Ricans are watching the skies anxiously. If the storm clouds gather again, the wind and rain will shred the precarious infrastructure that people have worked so hard to sew together.

“The recovery was so fragile, it wouldn’t take a Category 4 hurricane to damage the grid and wipe out power,” notes Martha Thompson, Oxfam Puerto Rico program manager. “In April, one excavator hit a line, and it took the whole grid down.”

Those who were struck down and haven’t gotten back up

As the high winds stripped trees bare, whole swaths of the countryside were exposed; Puerto Ricans say you can now see everything more clearly now – especially the underlying poverty and vulnerabilities.

In many ways, the hurricane deepened the divides in Puerto Rico. While urban centers are coming back to life—as the lights come on and businesses reopen—the reality in many remote rural areas is much more arduous, and dispiriting.

Those who were already vulnerable were hit the hardest, and have had the most difficulty recovering. Losing a roof may be temporary – or it may be permanent. And a tarp will not withstand another blow. So now many thousands are facing a new hurricane season a few steps back: lacking adequate shelter, or power, or water, or jobs, or transportation, or healthcare.

“Hurricane Maria pushed many people a few rungs down on the ladder,” notes Thompson. “If they haven’t been able to muster the resources to climb back up, they’re extremely vulnerable as the hurricane season looms again.”

Vulnerability factors range from personal circumstances (poverty, age extremes, disability) to geography (remote highlands, devastated coast). When risk factors are overlaid, the result is a population that 1) never fully recovered from the impact of Maria; and 2) is extremely vulnerable to dangers from a new hurricane season. Thousands of people are a power blip away from losing vital medications or machinery that keep them alive.

Staff from a variety of organizations report difficult cases across the island, such as people in wheelchairs who have no running water, elderly people in buildings where the roof was torn off, but never repaired. “The existing social service structure, such as visiting nurses, is struggling to deal with all the demands and strains on the system,” says Thompson.

While Hurricane Maria churned over Puerto Rico for hours on September 20, 2017, high winds uprooted trees, toppled power lines, and ripped the roofs off countless buildings. Especially in the mountainous countryside, old growth trees were stripped bare and felled; Puerto Ricans say this exposed many things, including the underlying poverty and vulnerabilities. (Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America)

Fragile power

While the lights have come on for most people in Puerto Rico, deep problems persist. First, many thousands of people still don’t have access to electricity. Second, the power grid has been repaired in such a way that it’s unreliable, and fragile to any blows. To this day, 700 FEMA generators are still operating essential services or providing back up all over the island, and the main power plant is using three Mega Generators supplied by FEMA. In other words, the existing grid is not supporting the power needs of the island.

In the highlands, power drops out intermittently, and communities have no information as to when it will return. In some neighborhoods close to the city, the power goes out for a day once a week; other days, the water is cut off.

Certain vulnerable populations are especially at risk if the power or water fails again. Among those who have need of consistent and reliable power supply are schools, medical buildings (clinics and hospitals), and buildings that house the elderly and infirm.

Substandard housing

Any aerial view of housing in Puerto Rico – from the capital of San Juan to the remote mountains – shows how completely blue tarps pepper the landscape. After the high winds tore off a quarter of a million roofs, it was difficult (if not impossible) to find the means to repair, even with temporary solution of tarps (in short supply).

Eventually, the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) installed 59,500 blue roofs (tarps). However, even professionally installed, these tarps are intended to last for only one month; imagine the fragility of living under a blue tarp that you installed yourself, without the right ropes or tools. When the winds pick up, you can see and feel how flimsy it is.

Many Puerto Ricans lack the financial resources to pay for installation of a new roof. FEMA’s Individual Housing program has provided very low payments. Only 0.11 percent of applicants received the maximum of $33,000; many have received less than $5,000 to reimburse for all their losses – furniture, appliances, rain damage. Even now, legal aid clinics are helping people contest the many refusals by FEMA.

Disaster preparedness: The long hurricane season ahead

When Maria hit, it was immediately clear that preparedness planning for the island was insufficient. There were initially too few staging areas for critical supplies, such as food and water and shelter, and supplies were not being trucked out to the 78 municipalities around the island. There was inadequate planning for alternative power for vital services (like healthcare) and essential communications services. People were stranded as downed trees and debris blocked roads for days with little helicopter support.

In short, notes Thompson, “People felt abandoned by FEMA and the federal government.”

Now, people are anxious to know if FEMA has made progress in planning for the impending season; and are eager to learn more. As the predictions for another severe hurricane season loom, “People are asking, ‘What is the government’s plan? Can we see it?’,” says Thompson. “Especially people with medical devices who are dependent on power: how many people died because of failure; what’s the plan?”

Only this week, with the release of a groundbreaking study from Harvard, did we learn what the failure of the power grid meant for people who relied on it for medical care – from dialysis machines to refrigerated medicine—and the thousands of deaths that resulted.

Everyone is anxious to make sure medical facilities have back-up generators and sufficient fuel. “We want to avoid the terrible situation where doctors were operating by flashlight,” she says. “We need to make sure that buildings that need it most have generators, water. And that we have supplies for emergencies, and a plan in place for communications.”

People rallying to rebuild – together

Still, just as those on the island have horror stories about the storm, most will also rush to tell you how Puerto Ricans pulled together, for long weeks and months, to help each other bounce back, both immediately and in the long run. Oxfam staff regularly meet people who are still driving for hours each day to deliver refrigerated insulin to relatives in the highlands; who provide transportation for elderly neighbors who need to go for dialysis treatment; who rallied to clear debris, rebuild roofs, cook hot meals. And they face this new season even more aware of how much they need to rally for each other.

As we begin the process of transitioning from emergency response to more long-term recovery efforts, we hold onto hope that we can rebuild in a more sustainable and resilient way that will endure any new blows (such as solar-powered water pumps). But we have a lot to do – and time is extremely short.

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