Hurricane-Ravaged Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Are Part of the US Too

Hurricane-Ravaged Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Are Part of the US Too

Hurricane-Ravaged Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Are Part of the US Too

But they don’t get the same level of attention as Florida and Texas—let alone equal representation.


As Hurricane Irma loomed larger and larger in the first days of September, there was much media speculation about when and how it would “make landfall” in the United States. We were told initially that the storm “poses a major threat to the Caribbean and potentially to the United States next week.” Later we were informed that it was likely to “tear across the islands of the northern Caribbean and potentially slam into the U.S. by the weekend or early next week.” Then headlines announced: “Hurricane Irma slams Caribbean islands; expected to hit US next week.”

As Irma headed toward the Florida Keys, Dr. AccuWeather’s Joel Myers lamented that, “Unfortunately, there is no way the United States is going to avoid another catastrophic weather event.”

The problem with all this storm coverage—which has dominated broadcast, print, and digital reporting for the better part of two weeks—has been a stubborn lack of precision regarding what is the United States.

Long before Hurricane Irma’s wind gusts and storm surges struck Florida Sunday, they were battering the United States.

Puerto Rico was, according to the BBC, pummeled last week by “waves of up to 30 feet off the capital San Juan.” That report noted that, “Although the US territory avoided a direct hit, its infrastructure was badly affected—more than half of the island’s three million residents were without power and officials said many could be cut off for several days. At least three deaths were reported on the island.” The storm appears to have been even rougher on the Virgin Islands. Widespread damage was reported and at least four people were killed. All that remained of some homes were foundations. And, to make matters worse, communications systems were down

The rebuilding process will be arduous, and expensive. Massive amounts of federal aid will be required by territories that experienced financial trouble long before this brutal storm season arrived. Puerto Rico has experienced fiscal turmoil in recent years at least in part because it is not allowed to respond to economic downturns in the same way states are, and because of the austerity agendas that have long been applied to US territories.

“This is not an event that is occurring in the Netherlands, where they’re ready for it and they have a strong economy,” Miguel A. Soto-Class, the president of the Center for a New Economy, a research group on the island, said as concerns about Hurricane Irma arose. “This is an event happening on a very poor island that’s been in a depression for the last 10 years.”

The Virgin Islands have also experienced hardship. As The New York Times explained earlier this year,

The public debts of the Virgin Islands are much smaller than those of Puerto Rico, which effectively declared bankruptcy in May. But so is its population, and therefore its ability to pay. This tropical territory of roughly 100,000 people owes some $6.5 billion to pensioners and creditors. Now, a combination of factors—insufficient tax revenue, a weak pension system, the loss of a major employer and a new reluctance in the markets to lend the Virgin Islands any more money—has made it almost impossible for the government to meet its obligations. In January, the Virgin Islands found itself unable to borrow and nearly out of funds for basic government operations.

These islands will need to make big asks of federal officials in coming days, weeks, and months. Yet, unlike Texas (which is still recovering from Hurricane Harvey) and Florida (which on Sunday was hard hit by Irma), Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands do not have elected advocates in Washington.

Puerto Rico has no voting representation in the House, the Senate, or the Electoral College that chooses the president. This has always been the case, despite the fact that Puerto Rico is home to roughly 3.5 million American citizens—more than Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, and 17 other US states.

The US Virgin Islands are home to more than 100,000 US citizens who have no voting representatives in Congress, and no voice in presidential elections. Guam, which has been much in the news of late because of North Korean threats and Donald Trump’s responses to them, is home to more than 160,000 US citizens, but also sits on the sidelines at election time.

US territories have a combined population of more than 4.1 million Americans. Add to their total the population of the District of Columbia, which is allowed to vote in presidential elections but that is not allowed to choose voting members of the US House or the US Senate, and the number gets close to 5 million.

Almost 5 million people, and not one voting representative in Congress.

Compare that with Wyoming, which elects a voting member of the US House, and two voting members of the US Senate. Wyoming also casts three votes in the Electoral College. The state’s total population is roughly 560,000.

Anyone who respects the basic premises of democracy will recognize that this electoral imbalance is atrocious—and potentially devastating for racially and ethnically diverse parts of the United States that need a voice and a vote when it comes to federal disaster relief and general budgeting.

There are proposals to address the imbalance. Puerto Rico recently voted to expand its exploration of the statehood option. There’s also an independence movement there.

But even if US territories retain their current status, their citizens should have voting representation in Congress and a right to cast ballots in presidential elections. For those who argue that size is a barrier to representation, one response might be to link regional island groups together for purposes of democratic inclusion—aligning Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, for instance. But it is important to remember that a number of current states achieved statehood at a point when their populations were much smaller than the current populations of the Virgin Islands or Guam.

Serious proposals to expand American democracy invariably inspire spirited debates—as we’ve seen when representation demands have been made by the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. What is dispiriting, and irresponsible, is the general avoidance by federal officials of discussions about how to assure that all US citizens are fully represented in our government. It should not take a disaster to make real the promise of American democracy. But this disaster does remind us that the work of building a more perfect union is incomplete.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy