Tag Archives: disaster recovery

The Cynicism of Emergency Aid for Puerto Rico

Newark    There seem to be no limits to the vengeful pettiness of President Trump and his administration.  Nowhere is that clearer than looking at the deliberate obstacles placed in the way of Puerto Rico’s recovery – or lack of it – from Hurricane Maria in 2017 or now the earthquake of 2020.

I’m watching the Puerto Rico story closely.  First, because I keep hoping against hope that we are learning something in dealing with disasters, and now, secondly, because my family was in Puerto Rico, and in fact in Guanica, where the recent 5.9 earthquake struck less than a week before the event.  I had not taken seriously the concerns expressed by daughter and mi companerai when one night in Ponce they had felt wave after wave of small tremors in the runup to what would be a worst event after we had returned home.  My old Latin teacher in high school used to call this a coup de gras, which he, a polio victim, defined as “kicking a cripple.”  Puerto Rico was hardly up off its knees when we were there and friends where optimistic about the report that emergency relief, already allocated by Congress, was finally about to be released.

Well, some $16 billion of the $20 billion allocation was released, now years after the storm, but it was done a bit in the way the sick joke works where a twenty dollar bill is left on the street and when someone bends down to pick it up, a string pulls it away, Candid Camera style.  To actually get the money, Puerto Rico must file a budget, agree to pay less than $15 per hour to workers on any projects, change its land ownership and title rules that are more informal, and, while jumping through all of those hoops, they have to wait while the fiscal review board diddles around with their requests before really, finally letting Puerto Rico have the money.

This is just meanness.  President Trump has been notoriously ill-tempered and tight-fisted with the island.  It seems his perceived prejudice against Muslims also extends to anyone, including citizens of a US territory like Puerto Rico, who speak Spanish.  The claim is concerns about corruption, but it seems undeniable that this is a smokescreen.  After Katrina in a terrible error, Louisiana’s Governor Blanco reacted to similar claims about potential corruption in recovery funds in such a way that federal money for housing relief was held up for what seemed forever, almost crippling the recovery.  Now, Puerto Rico is caught in the same shadowboxing.

The electric grid collapsed again in the aftermath of the earthquake for several days.  Trump insisted that none of the recovery money now kind of being released can be used for that purpose.  On the island, we heard that the issue has to do with an attempt to privatize the system, which likely is supported by the administration.  HUD supposedly had allocated $2 billion for the grid, but once again, HUD under Secretary Ben Carson has gone out of the way to make accessing any money difficult for Puerto Rico.

All talk, no action, dooms recovery.

Puerto Ricans are not allowed to vote in the Presidential election, which means that President Trump couldn’t care less if Puerto Rico and its people rise or fall, live or die.

What a tragedy.  And, an outrage!

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Katrina and Maria, More Disaster Anniversaries and Lessons Unlearned

Screenshot of Gwen Adams’ interview on WWLTV https://www.wwltv.com/video/news/lower-9th-ward-13-years-after-katrina/289-8234818

Greenville        In New Zealand we were asked, “How is New Orleans?”  In California, whether Santa Rosa or Sonoma, the question arose, “How is New Orleans?”  Thirteen years have passed since Hurricane Katrina swept through the city, and the question is still important, “How is New Orleans?”  The answer:  better than it was, but not as good as it needs to be.

That’s not a whine, just a statement of fact.  Another new Mayor is now in charge, our first woman, an African-American again, and our first non-native born in a long, long time.  There’s hope mixed with thirteen years of cynicism.  Too many plans have been made without enough progress.

The big local television station reached out for ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, so that they could dig deep into the lingering impacts felt by one of their leaders, Gwen Adams.  They wanted to tell the story through a personal lens, but her organizational t-shirt cries out about how political this is.  Gwen lives within a spit of the levee in the lower 9th ward.  She was a union teacher in the New Orleans Public School System.  She was fired like thousands of others, and despite the fact that she was a former Teacher-of-the-Year in Orleans Parish, she was never offered a return to work.  She was also unwilling to go to work at lower pay, forfeited retirement and other benefits, and no job security or protection for a charter operator.  She is now a sometimes substitute teacher.  She is a great ACORN and ACV leader.  These are the facts.

The facts are also being reckoned with in Puerto Rico almost a year after the island was slammed by Hurricane Maria.  The governor there actually apologized, which is a refreshing surprise.  He also announced that the death total is now estimated at near 3000 people compared to the earlier estimates that were hardly one-hundred.  In the same report, the news story mentioned that the death total from Katrina is still not known absolutely.  The governor noted that they had no disaster plan that assumed no power, no highway access, and no communication.  George Washington University in the District of Columbia has been doing a study for them, but it is hard to believe there will be any surprises.

A spokesperson for the Milken Institute argued that the lesson of Puerto Rico is “focus as much as possible on lower-income areas, on people who are older, who are more vulnerable.”  A survey from Kaiser Health Foundation and others in Texas in the wake of Harvey found that the same populations were still suffering there.  We all thought that was also the lesson learned from Katrina thirteen years ago.

When are we going to be willing to really act on the lessons we keep being taught after disasters?  No one seems to know – or act on – the lessons we keep being forced to learn at the price of suffering and death.

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