Speakers: Five months after hurricane Puerto Rico still a mess
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, some disastrous circumstances, like collapsed power lines, persist. | Carlos Giusti/AP

WASHINGTON – Five months after Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rico is still a mess. And the federal response to the catastrophe that struck the island commonwealth’s 3.2 million U.S. citizens is both terrible and ideologically slanted.

Those were the key points that seemed to come through at a six-hour forum on the disaster and its aftermath, hosted by the American Federation of Teachers, its Al Shanker Institute, and the Hispanic Federation, on March 1.

Maria caused at least $94 billion in damage to an island already reeling from double-digit joblessness, high poverty, aging and creaky infrastructure, a decade-long depression and – to top it all off – a federally imposed control board named to straighten out its finances after Wall Streeters demanded repayment of $72 billion in bonds.

The commonwealth government’s response was to declare bankruptcy and impose an austerity plan. That only made a bad situation worse, two financial analysts, both Puerto Rican natives, said.

But the damage was really much more than that, panelists said. There are still 1,500 people living in temporary shelters in churches and schools in Ponce alone, said Mayor María Melita Meléndez Altieri. One-third of the island still is without power. At night, one speaker said, there still aren’t any street lights in Old San Juan.  And more than 1,000 people died.

Hundreds of schools have closed and 300 more may do so, added Aida Díaz Rivera, president of AFT’s affiliate, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico. The teachers haven’t had a raise in a decade, she said, and thousands of them live below the poverty line. Due to emigration even before Maria, Puerto Rico’s K-12 student population dropped from 400,000 in 2010 to 330,000 in June 2016.

“There are two Puerto Ricos: The one I saw as a girl growing up, full of joy and hope – and the other, after Maria, full of sadness and lack of hope,” said Díaz Rivera, a science and family ecology teacher.

Meléndez Altieri told the story of an old man in a town outside Ponce who evacuated his family and turned around to make sure all were out – and watched Maria destroy his house. He had just gotten a $35,000 loan for repairs and the results and everything else were gone.

GOP President Donald Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency offered him $26,000 for the whole thing. “He’s been in and out of the hospital twice and he looks like he’s aged 20 years,” she said.

And federal aid was botched up. While speakers did not say so, the latest case, reported the day before, showed an unknown firm from Atlanta delivered only 50,000 meals of the 30 million it promised to victims immediately after the hurricane hit and left. FEMA paid $156 million to the company, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., revealed in that report.

Puerto Ricans are eager and excited to rebuild and modernize their island, making it more attractive to workers, residents, businesses and to lure back exiles who fled after the storm.

But Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello is working “straight out of the Trump-DeVos playbook” and scheming to voucherize, charterize and privatize the island’s schools, said Weingarten. Other planned moves, speakers said, would not repair the island’s infrastructure and would not lure industry and jobs.

“When things are not going well, it’s bad if we do nothing, but it’s worse if we do it wrong,” Díaz Rivera added.

The speakers agreed with various reports recommending the first step is to wipe out the island’s $72 billion debt. That would take congressional action, said Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., sponsors of a $146 billion Puerto Rico aid bill.

All the money should go to the island’s residents, not to the bankers and other creditors, the three senators said. But if Congress “calls for increasing payments to creditors and large cuts in public services, we will fight it,” Warren vowed. “The vulture funds should not profit from Puerto Rico,” and specifically from their discounted bond purchases, she added.

“What happened in Puerto Rico mirrors what happened in New Orleans after Katrina” 12 years ago, Sanders added. There, the GOP George W. Bush administration’s FEMA botched recovery aid, and Bush’s allies used the city for right-wing social experiments. Sanders mentioned one: Turning 90 percent of New Orleans public schools into a charter system, unaccountable to voters.

Though Sanders did not say so, charterizing virtually destroyed the United Teachers of New Orleans, one of labor’s largest union locals in the South. Privatization efforts also cut into the ranks of the Amalgamated Transit Union’s bus drivers there.

“We cannot allow it (Puerto Rico’s school system) to be turned into a private charter system that puts profits before kids,” Sanders said. These “are the same forces” that attack public schools and teachers on the mainland, Weingarten added. “And we’ve already seen folks from the mainland come to Puerto Rico to make a buck off Puerto Rico’s distress.”

The only way to put Puerto Rico back on the front pages and enact reforms that really help its residents is advocacy and pressure on lawmakers from stateside campaigners, Weingarten and the senators said.

“Texas has two senators. Florida has two senators,” Sanders said of two mainland states hurricanes also clobbered last year – and which got aid quickly. “Puerto Rico has zero senators. The Virgin Islands have zero senators. If Puerto Rico has no (voting) representatives in Congress, all of us must be those representatives.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).