First Person

What’s the best way forward for Puerto Rico?

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San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz (left) meets with other officials working on the disaster response to Hurricane Maria at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan. Photo by Márel Malaret.

The more we hear about reality on the ground, the more we wonder how the island can recover—and the more we commit to take action.

My colleague Linde Rivera is on the ground in Puerto Rico, and sending updates whenever she can. Yesterday’s update:

“I have never seen a situation like this in Puerto Rico. We have had previous hurricanes, but this is totally unprecedented. People’s lives are totally disrupted. Some people have been without electricity since Irma. People cannot cook, many people do not have access to food, supermarkets were depleted. Only in San Juan would you find some places with access to food or supplies. People don’t have access to clean water. And there is no end in sight in the immediate future since the government has acknowledged that the electricity grid will not be restored for six months.”

“The worst is the situation in hospitals, where there are no generators and patients lack attention and care and medicines. The countryside is much worse.”

If you’re like me and wondering how Puerto Rico can ever recover from the catastrophic damage from Hurricane Maria, it’s been a tough couple of weeks. After the storm hit, I stood by waiting, waiting, waiting for the emergency response to reach 3.4 million people.

Although the recovery is starting (slowly), most of the reports indicate aid is not getting to everyone who needs it—especially those in rural areas who are most vulnerable. That’s what prompted Oxfam to do something we almost never do: commit to working on an emergency response in a country that has the money and assets to address the emergency, but seems more inclined to “excuses and criticism from the administration instead of a cohesive and compassionate response,” as our President of Oxfam America Abby Maxman said in a statement on Monday.

We now have staff on the island starting to put together a plan to address the many needs on the island. Here’s what I can report so far:

Help meet immediate needs: Despite what some may say, Puerto Ricans are working hard to help each other survive and recover. In our experience, local organizations are the ones best able to help people immediately, and to articulate their needs to elected leaders about what’s needed to rebuild better and prepare for the next threat. Our team on the island is connecting with and identifying which groups are most effectively reaching people and would benefit from funds and technical support from Oxfam.

Their first stop was to check in with staff in the office of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been prominent in the media recently. In addition to assisting people in and around the city, “they’re very concerned about people in rural areas,” Rivera told me over a scratchy phone line from San Juan. “They are trying to help as much as possible, collaborating with other local authorities to help people. They are hearing reports about elderly people who are dying, they don’t have food and water and electricity and they can’t get to medical assistance. They are being found in their homes…” She went on,

“Yesterday they told us about a young man from a rural community—Baranquilla–who came in begging for help. He said that his community was cut off, they were pooling food and cooking together to maximize food. But now, they only had a few kilograms of rice, and he came to beg for food… His case was verified and the mayor’s office sent food.”

Find more resources for the island: We also want to address some of the underlying problems that made Puerto Rico so vulnerable to Maria. We are working with Puerto Ricans to push our leaders to step up with the resources to address the impact of the storm (which may have inflicted more than $70 billion in damage) in ways that help the island to recover, develop economically, and be less vulnerable to climate risks like hurricanes. We’re pushing for changes in laws like the Jones Act (that increases the costs of shipping goods to the island), and urging Congress to extend deadlines for filing for disaster relief from FEMA, and stop the payments on the island’s $74 billion debt so it can channel resources into rebuilding better.

In the meantime, Rivera says people she meets are really struggling. “I’m seeing people doing an amazing job helping each other out, to cover their basic needs, like sharing water and fuel. It’s inspiring to see people in such a dire situation helping each other as much as possible.”

Lastly, since we started working on Puerto Rico four days ago, thousands of you have stepped up with donations, so I want to thank you and ask you to share this piece with others who might be inclined to help.

Help us meet the most critical needs of people struggling to survive in Puerto Rico.

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