FEMA aid has stalled to Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands
ST. CROIX, U.S. Virgin Islands
More than two years after back-to-back hurricanes ravaged this tropical island, medical workers are still treating gunshot wounds in hallways and kidney failure in a trailer. They ignore their own inflamed rashes that they say are caused by the mold that has shut down an entire hospital floor below a still-porous roof.
At least they have a hospital. The lone medical center on Vieques, an idyllic island that is part of Puerto Rico, was severely damaged by hurricanes Maria and Irma, then abandoned to wandering roosters and grazing horses. Ailing people wait at the ferry dock to catch a boat to the mainland.
Two years on, “we are in the same situation as we were in the days after the hurricane,” said Rafael Surillo Ruiz, the mayor of Yabucoa, on Puerto Rico’s hard-hit eastern edge.
An examination of Federal Emergency Management Agency data and records demonstrates the degree to which the recovery from hurricanes Maria and Irma on America’s Caribbean islands has been stalled compared with some of the most disaster-prone states on the mainland, leaving the islands’ critical infrastructure in squalor and limbo. FEMA officials say 190 long-term recovery projects have been funded in Puerto Rico - out of more than 9,000 requests. On the U.S. Virgin Islands, about 218 projects had funding - out of more than 1,500 requests and still counting.
In contrast, about 3,700 large and small permanent work projects had obligated funding in Texas, two years after Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast in August 2017. More than 3,700 such projects had been funded over that time in Florida.
That disparity underscored how a federal government in Washington has treated citizens on the mainland, with voting representatives in Congress and a say in presidential contests, compared with citizens on the islands. Further complicating the recovery are issues of corruption, often amplified by President Donald Trump and, islanders say, questions of race.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about the life and the well-being of human beings,” said Dyma Williams, acting chief executive at the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix. “I hate to make the distinction about American versus not American, but at the end of the day, we’re not being treated the same way as other Americans are being treated.”
Jeffrey Byard, the associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery at FEMA, said the agency had never seen recovery efforts like those from the natural disasters of 2017, which included hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma, as well as wildfires in California.
“Comparing disasters misleads the American people,” he said. “Each event has a unique set of circumstances, and numbers alone cannot and do not provide a complete picture of what is needed to help communities recover.”
Little evidence of program’s aid
FEMA, through its public assistance program, helps communities recover from major disasters by assisting with debris removal, lifesaving emergency protective measures and public infrastructure reconstruction. Debris removal and protective measures are classified as emergency work. The “permanent work” of public infrastructure repair is what guarantees long-term recovery.
And that permanent work is in little evidence on St. Croix and in Puerto Rico.
“When you’re living on an island and you don’t have a voice on decisions that are made, that tends to happen to you,” said Yves Abraham, principal of St. Croix’s hard-hit Central High School. “Who do you gripe to? All we can do is sit and wait.”
FEMA officials say much of the problem lies with the system that Washington uses to pay for recovery assistance. Local governments or charities usually front the money to at least begin construction and then are reimbursed by FEMA. But the islands have seen a sluggish recovery after the hurricanes.
“Because of the fiscal challenges and their situation financially, they don’t have the funding or access to loans,” said Chris Currie, director of the Government Accountability Office team that studies disaster relief. “So they are completely reliant on FEMA.”
Hopes were raised recently at the Juan F. Luis Hospital with the appearance of a row of trailers where the community could be treated until a replacement hospital is built. But Adrienne Williams-Octalien, director of the local disaster recovery office on St. Croix, said the island did not have the upfront funds to start retrofitting the trailers, and help from FEMA had been delayed by a tussle over how much of the costs the federal agency would cover. That has pushed the completion date of even the temporary structure to the spring of 2020 - near the start of the next hurricane season.