The United States has faced a series of disasters, including consecutive hurricanes devastating Texas, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, along with wildfires in the West. After impacting the Caribbean, Hurricane Maria exacerbated the situation in Puerto Rico, creating a humanitarian crisis. The September 21 storm resulted in about a dozen casualties and left the island in darkness.
Now, approximately 3.4 million Puerto Ricans, considered American citizens, are grappling with life without essential services such as electricity, gas, cellular service, and, in many instances, proper shelter. The island, already facing a decade of fiscal decline and a bankruptcy in May 2017, has become exceptionally vulnerable to calamities like Hurricane Maria.
Issues such as food insecurity, inadequate healthcare, and transportation shortages existed before the hurricane, rooted in damaging U.S. policies and a deepening financial crisis. These challenges are now complicating Puerto Rico’s recovery.
Food insecurity has been a longstanding concern as the island imports over 85 percent of its food. Rationing began after Hurricane Irma in September, and Puerto Rico may only have one month’s worth of food on hand. The reopening of the main port on September 23 allowed aid to arrive, but distributing supplies across the island’s damaged roadways remains challenging.
Puerto Rico’s efforts to boost domestic food production were set back by Maria, causing an estimated loss of around US$780 million in crop value overnight.
The healthcare system in Puerto Rico was already strained due to austerity measures, with budgets for hospitals and healthcare facilities reduced by 15 percent from 2011 to 2015. The island also faces a shortage of healthcare professionals, further complicating medical care for those injured during and after the hurricane.
Transportation shortages are another critical issue, affecting the ability of many Puerto Ricans to access help. With public transit struggling due to budget cuts and bankruptcy, evacuation efforts are hindered, leaving a significant portion of the population reachable only by helicopter.
Despite the dire situation, the response from the Trump administration has been lacking, with a slow pace of aid compared to other disaster-stricken areas. Urgent disaster relief is needed, and increased aid for law enforcement and transportation, among other basic needs, is crucial.
The resilience of the Puerto Rican people has come to the forefront as they support each other in the absence of significant federal assistance. However, there are calls for the U.S. Congress to play a more substantial role in the territory’s longer-term recovery, such as increasing Medicaid funding to alleviate the strain on Puerto Rico’s scarce resources.