After an absence of more than 50 years, I returned to Puerto Rico this month to view firsthand Hurricane Maria’s devastation. I spent most of my formative years growing up in Puerto Rico, attended a local high school, and took my first post-college job on the island. My emotional ties to Puerto Rico are strong; my son, a true borrinqueno, and one of my sisters were born in San Juan.
Over the years, I had thought often of going back to visit old haunts, but never did. I knew that decades of booming tourism had spawned rampant development along miles of unspoiled Atlantic Beach coastline, forever changing Puerto Rico’s landscape. From Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again,” “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same.” But things only remain the same in a person’s mind if he never goes back.
Some sections of Puerto Rico are slowly returning to normal. Tourism is slow, but the hotels and restaurants that serve visitors are up and running. Most advertise: “We have electricity,” a reminder that even in Puerto Rico’s biggest cities, residents were without power for weeks.
Outside of the major municipalities, however, much of the island is still coping and wondering when full power will be restored, and end the longest and largest outage in U.S. history. Trees, traffic lights and bridges are down, and store fronts, closed. Nearly four months ago, Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello promised that 95 percent of electricity delivery would be functional by December 15. But in a December study, local experts estimated that roughly 50 percent of the island’s 3.3 million people were still without power. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted that all Puerto Rico won’t be fully electrified until May.
In addition to the daily physical challenges that being without power present, Puerto Ricans have endured an emotional roller coaster of Washington, D.C. follies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced on January 29 that it would discontinue its food and water distribution to the island effective January 31. The responsibility would be turned over to the Puerto Rican government, a prospect that terrified residents, especially the elderly and poor. Two days later, FEMA walked back its original statement, and assured Puerto Ricans that it would continue its assistance.
Then, a scam of unprecedented magnitude victimized Puerto Ricans. FEMA awarded a $156 billion contract to the one-person Tribute Contracting LLC to provide 30 million meals to hungry Puerto Ricans. Only 50,000 were delivered. Because of previous questionable dealings, the federal government had barred Tribute from government work until 2019. An investigation is underway, too little, too late.
Hurricane Maria’s death toll was originally estimated at about 65; however, more than 1,000 perished. Despite the far-reaching extent of the Puerto Rico disaster which came on top of the island’s bankruptcy because of its combined bond and pension debt that totals about $120 billion, Congress has shown little interest in extending a helping hand to its fellow U.S. citizens. About half of Americans don’t know Puerto Ricans are citizens, status granted a century ago during Woodrow Wilson’s administration.
Ahead of the brief government shutdown, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that his top priorities are passing a two-year budget deal and “solving the DACA challenge,” meaning amnesty. Ryan insisted that he is “committed” to a DACA amnesty for about 690,000 illegal immigrants.
But Ryan said nothing about Puerto Rico, and the ongoing suffering that tens of thousands of Americans still endure while Congress prioritizes legalizing illegal immigrants.
For anguished Puerto Ricans, being shunted aside while Congress debates illegal immigrants’ futures is another bitter pill for them to swallow.