News stories following deadly, devastating disasters generally showcase the best of humanity: neighbors coming together to aid those affected. Anecdotes like these abounded in the wake of Hurricane María, which ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017 killing between 3,000–5,000 people and causing $100 billion in damage. We heard similar stories following the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck southern Puerto Rico on January 7, with people providing food trucks, makeshift shelters, construction crews, medical services and supplies.
But another news story this week has laid bare the darker side of such disasters. Earlier this month, a video showed a warehouse full of rotting supplies dating back to Hurricane María. The video led to the firing of several government officials, including Puerto Rico’s emergency agency manager. But this is just one symptom of a larger problem: how the failures and corruption rampant in governments will increasingly affect disaster-stricken residents, especially with climate change exacerbating such events by making them more frequent and intense.
In recent years, the Puerto Rican and U.S. federal governments have shown themselves incapable of mounting an adequate response to humanitarian crises, often playing games with aid for political benefit. Last summer, contents of a now-infamous chat were leaked, proving that Puerto Rican Governor Rosselló’s administration engaged in a campaign of deceit, and withheld aid and accurate scientific information from the public to cover up their inept response to Hurricane María. He resigned following the scandal and the nation went through three governors in the span of a few weeks. Fast forward to the recent earthquakes, with the Puerto Rican people —unable to trust their government— choosing to instead take community or individual recovery and rebuilding actions.
President Trump’s ongoing, vocal vendetta against Puerto Rico has also been widely publicized, exacerbating rather than alleviating the on-the-ground situation. The indelible image of President Trump throwing rolls of paper towels at Hurricane María victims in my hometown of Guaynabo perfectly captures how his administration has treated disaster-affected Puerto Ricans. Following the hurricanes and earthquakes, his administration ultimately granted millions in recovery aid, but with significant strings attached. For example, the $15 federal minimum wage won’t apply, to those providing disaster aid, a move that will hurt locals hired to do work that’s often dangerous. The Commonwealth will also be required to create a property and deeds registration system to process emergency aid requests. This requirement ignores the fact that people in low-income communities often lack the legal services needed to formalize housing ownership when passing property down from one generation to the next. In other words, deeds for their properties often don’t exist, which would make them ineligible for aid.
In non-sovereign Puerto Rico, which has been under U.S. colonial rule for 122 years, we’ve struggled to find our own identity and strength. Amid the electoral and political merry-go-round happening in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans on the island and abroad are taking direct action to aid the thousands affected by recent disasters, a stark contrast to the anemic local and federal government response. In 2019, more than half a million Puerto Ricans mobilized and successfully changed the status quo in San Juan. In November, a record number of Independent candidates will be on the ballot for Puerto Rico’s general election. And the thousands of Puerto Ricans who left the island after Hurricane María will likewise be an electoral force in the upcoming U.S. elections.
A Spanish saying has been making the rounds on social media, which roughly translates to: “You know how great a people truly are when the minimum wage isn’t enough to make a living, but is enough to help others out.” The power of collective action may have been lost on politicians, but not on the Puerto Rican people. And they will continue to hold their leaders accountable to address the causes of climate change and provide adequate assistance to communities affected by its impacts.