The federal government’s response to Hurricane Ian is being watched by Puerto Ricans

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico five years ago, then-President Donald Trump complained that it was too difficult for the world’s most powerful country to get much-needed aid to an island of more than 3 million American citizens. He blamed geography – as if Puerto Rico were in another universe. “This is an island” said Trump of the American colony. “Surrounded by water. Big water. Sea water.”

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico five years ago, Donald Trump complained that it was too difficult to get help for an island of more than 3 million American citizens.

On Thursday, when President Joe Biden addressed both the devastation caused by Wednesday’s Hurricane Ian in Florida and the challenges Puerto Ricans still face after Hurricane Fiona on Sept. 18, he presented a different message.

“As we see the devastating imagery in Florida, I want to make it clear: For the people of Puerto Rico, we’re not gone,” Biden said at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters. “I am committed to you and the island’s recovery. We’re by your side no matter how long it takes to get it done.”

Despite this, the Puerto Rican government still needs a federal waiver to allow foreign-flagged ships to supply much-needed diesel to run generators and cellphone towers. The antiquated Jones Act only allows US ships to bring goods and supplies to Puerto Rico. For decades, Puerto Ricans have ranted about how much the law has stifled economic growth and mere recovery, and the recent example of it being used to explain a delay in aid provides another reason why the Jones Act should be repealed immediately .

Such a scenario would never happen in Florida (or the Carolinas, where Ian was headed on Friday), which is a stark contrast between the states of the Union and the colonies of the United States.

A comparison of Fiona’s White House response and his plan to respond to Ian in Florida reveals the simple truth: States in the US receive more aid and resources than Puerto Rico, resulting in an unequal and unjust recovery.

A 900-page report by the US Commission on Civil Rights, released Sept. 21, blamed FEMA for errors the commission found during Maria. In short, FEMA did not adequately respond to the crisis with cultural competence or understanding of the communities it sought to serve.

“We believe that the people of Puerto Rico were treated in a manner inconsistent with the mandate of equality, fairness and impartiality regarding Hurricane Maria,” Commissioner Michael Yaki told NBC News.

Biden’s decision to mention Fiona on Thursday deserves praise, but with little changing since Maria in 2017 and the nation’s focus shifting to Ian, the question remains: will Puerto Rico be forgotten again?

The answer is not so clear.

A Morning Consult poll this week found that 75% of registered voters believe the federal government is responsible for efforts to recover Fiona in Puerto Rico. On the one hand, it’s a bad question, no matter how well-intentioned it may be. Of course, the federal government has to help Puerto Rico; Puerto Ricans are US citizens. On the other hand, it is significant that 25% of respondents either do not believe that the government is responsible for helping Puerto Rico rebuild (17%) or are unsure (8%).. Perhaps they are responding to the excuses Trump made in 2017 about why federal aid and aid are harder to come by. Or maybe they mistakenly see the people of the island as foreigners.

The mistakes made by FEMA starting in 2017 have held up large parts of Puerto Rico’s Maria recovery plan.

Still, Biden delivered on a few points. First, shortly after Fiona’s attack, he approved a declaration of a major disaster for the island and said the federal government would cover 100% of all recovery costs for the first month. But as of Friday, more than 10 days after the Category 1 storm, power is still out in the hardest-hit areas, prompting continued desperation and frustration.

The mistakes that FEMA made, according to the Civil Rights Commission, as of 2017 have held up large parts of Puerto Rico’s Maria Recovery plan, and we should all hope the lessons have been learned. FEMA was better prepared for Fiona than for Maria. That extra preparedness included positioning critical supplies on the island ahead of Fiona’s arrival, according to the White House. The commission’s push for “equality, fairness, and impartiality” appears to have had some effect, despite Puerto Rico’s inability to access billions of dollars the federal government earmarked for Maria’s recovery.


Climate change is indeed real, and hurricane intensity has increased. A hurricane does not determine where it strikes, and emergency response and assistance must be the same whether the affected Americans are on the mainland or in one of the American colonies.

Right now, tragedy and hopelessness have struck millions of Americans caught in the path of a storm. One person’s life should not take precedence over another’s. Our hope for the best in Florida and South Carolina shouldn’t make us ignore Puerto Rico. The government needs to cut through bureaucracy and restore wholeness to the island – as Biden said, as long as it takes to get that done. The federal government’s response to Hurricane Ian is being watched by Puerto Ricans

Rick Schindler

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