Hurricane Maria has created a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. Much of the capital city of San Juan is flooded; there is contaminated water in the streets, shortages of gasoline and water, and looming crises for senior citizens in fragile health, reports Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Maria destroyed what Hurricane Irma, which struck earlier in September, did not: Virtually the entire island is without electricity, and cell-phone service and other communications are severely strained. Municipalities like Guayama, Cataño, and Toa Baja have reported massive floods and unthinkable devastation. (My mother and other family members live in a remote mountain town near the rain forest, and while I know they’re safe, their food, water, and medications will only last so long.) A damaged dam at Lake Guajataca, near the northwestern town of Isabela, is threatening thousands of residents in nearby areas. As we go to press, 16 fatalities have been reported, but thousands of citizens have lost their homes, and those figures could increase substantially when the final numbers come in. Representative Nydia Velázquez estimates that Puerto Rico will need $10 billion for a full recovery.
The US government has declared Puerto Rico a disaster area, making it eligible for funding by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And the Trump administration suspended the usual matching-fund requirement (currently 25 percent of the federal amount). But it denied a request from several members of Congress to lift restrictions in the 1920 Jones Act, which require that all goods transported between mainland US ports and those in Puerto Rico be carried on US-flagged ships constructed, owned, and crewed by US citizens.
With conditions worsening, the Trump administration reacted laconically on September 25 through press spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who insisted that Tom Bossert of the Department of Homeland Security and Brock Long of FEMA needed time to conduct “a more thorough and deeper assessment of what needs there are,” to make sure “we’re actually funding the correct things.” A senior congressional aide suggested the decision would take until “the first or second week of October.” That evening, Trump himself tweeted that while “much of the island was destroyed,” Puerto Rico’s billions of dollars of debt “owed to Wall Street…sadly, must be dealt with.”
While immediate aid is desperately needed, the Trump administration, unsurprisingly, is missing the point: It is time for Washington to abandon its austerity approach to Puerto Rico. As a result of the PROMESA bill passed by Congress last year, a Financial Oversight and Management Board has been imposed to restructure the island’s $68 billion debt, address an additional $49 billion in pension obligations, and promote economic development. To its credit, the FOMB announced on September 21 that it would allow Governor Ricardo Rosselló to redistribute up to $1 billion of the territory’s budget as an emergency fund for hurricane damages. But this is the proverbial drop in the bucket for a weary populace ravaged not only by today’s bankruptcy and storms worsened by climate change, but by decades of colonial neglect.
The FOMB—or La Junta, as it is known in Puerto Rico—never made sense, at least as a way to kindle economic development. Its primary purpose is to allow the collection of debt by bondholders, thus preventing disruption of the municipal-bond market, a crucial area of speculation for America’s financial industry. La Junta’s austerity measures would have caused a contraction of the economy, not growth—indeed, before the storms, islanders had already seen a deterioration in their daily lives. Hurricane Maria has moved all of this into fast-forward, and the always fallacious promise of PROMESA has become a cruel joke.