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Puerto Rico faces obstacles to recovery in the aftermath of Fiona

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Professor Yarimar Bonilla is with us now to talk more about what people are facing in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm. She's the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City. Professor Bonilla, welcome to the program.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yes, always happy to be here, I suppose.

FADEL: I'm sorry that it's in these circumstances. And I know you have family on the island, right? How are they doing?

BONILLA: You know, as all Puerto Ricans say, they're OK. But, you know, OK means that they don't have any water, they don't have any power.

FADEL: Wow.

BONILLA: And they're not sure when it's going to come back.

FADEL: So what are they doing in the meantime without power, without water?

BONILLA: Well, Puerto Ricans are - you know, they know how to do this, right? They somehow spent a year without power after Maria.

FADEL: Yeah.

BONILLA: So they have their battery-powered radios. They have their gas camping stove and their portable solar lights. My family can't afford a generator. One of my uncle who does have a generator, unfortunately, when he went to turn it on, it didn't work. So even some with generators are in the dark.

FADEL: Wow. Now, I keep going back to this. I asked a reporter this. I want to ask this to you as well because, as you mentioned, after Hurricane Maria, people think of these storms and what could happen. Today is five years to the day since that storm made landfall on the island, plunged it into darkness for months, killed nearly 3,000 people, destroyed homes and businesses. People are still recovering. Billions of dollars were allocated from Congress to rebuild and rebuild so that the island could withstand storms like this. And yet here we're watching a weaker storm, although the rainfall has been constant, just devastate the island. Why?

BONILLA: Well, part of it has to do with climate change. Of course.

FADEL: Yeah.

BONILLA: That means that these storms are coming faster and faster, but it also has to do with the fact that emergency response hasn't adapted to climate change. It's not rebuilding in time. And so some of the recovery in Puerto Rico has been extremely slow, part of it because of the bureaucracy of FEMA that takes a long time to release funds, that often does patchwork, temporary solutions, like this bridge that we all saw wash away like a twig because it couldn't even stand, you know, a Category 1 storm.

FADEL: And this is a bridge that was rebuilt after...

BONILLA: After Maria.

FADEL: ...It was destroyed by Maria. Yeah.

BONILLA: Yes, but it was a temporary bridge, and the permanent bridge, you know, was not even started yet. And, you know, part of it was also that FEMA funds, they're always slow, but they were overly policed when it came to Puerto Rico. They were held back. They were extremely vetted. And I'm talking here at the societal level. At the individual level as well, a disproportionate number of individuals never received FEMA payments from Maria in the first place to rebuild from Maria. And so we know that there were still people in their blue tarps or people who were never able to really fully repair their homes.

FADEL: Now, why? Why did this happen? And what should FEMA have done differently, in your opinion?

BONILLA: Well, there was overpolicing of individual applications, and there was also a delay in getting that help out. And in some cases, there was more emphasis on relocating people outside of Puerto Rico rather than in helping them rebuild. And so these are all things that we will be looking to FEMA to do differently this time.

FADEL: Now, the island's entire power grid went down with this storm. That also happened five years ago. And again, there was a lot of emphasis about fixing the power grid, and there's been a lot of criticism around that. Why did it fail again?

BONILLA: Well, part of it is that there was an emphasis by the federal government and the fiscal appointed - the federally appointed fiscal board in Puerto Rico, that the electric grid had to be privatized before it could be repaired or modernized. And so the emphasis was not on updating, modernizing the electric grid, using sustainable energy, creating redundancies in the system - all the things you would imagine, you know, would be an emphasis in a place that we know is going to continue to be hit by hurricanes 'cause it's in the Caribbean. Instead, the focus has been on privatizing the grid to a company that experts have found is not transparent, is not accountable, and does not have sufficient personnel to attend to the grid in moments like these.

FADEL: Now, after Hurricane Maria, how did Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. territory rather than a state or a sovereign nation impact the way the island was rebuilt or in this rebuilding process that is incomplete, really?

BONILLA: Well, we see that we don't get the same amount of federal funds. We don't qualify for all sorts of federal funds. There's also a lack of knowledge at times of what funds need to be requested versus which ones are immediately released. And individuals are not getting enough funds. At the same time, we don't have the sovereignty to create our own vision of a FEMA or of emergency management. And under the current austerity policies, we barely even have, you know, functioning infrastructure because there have been so much cuts to public services. So it affects in every possible way.

FADEL: So when we're looking at the destruction now with Fiona, what are the consequences of those decisions now that - the challenges faced because it's a U.S. territory?

BONILLA: I mean, part of it is that because of the shrinking of the Puerto Rican government under austerity, more and more burden is placed on individuals that they have to get groceries, get solar batteries, get all the provisions that they need, including drinking water. But these individuals have been impoverished by austerity politics. They're paying the highest income tax in the entire United States. And the Fiscal Control Board denied reducing income tax on hurricane supplies. So they have to front all this money that now they don't know if they're going to be supported in any way. I mean, so many applications were denied after Maria that, really, one would hope that there would be some lessons learned after COVID and of the help that just immediate cash payments can make to people. So hopefully folks in disaster areas don't have to go through complicated bureaucracy just to get the lifesaving supplies that they need and that the government is not able to provide them.

FADEL: Well, let's expand on that. In your view, how should the federal government's disaster relief approach in Puerto Rico change? How does it need to change?

BONILLA: Well, I think there needs to be less bureaucracy and less vetting, which might sound contradictory. But the fact is that the resources that FEMA spent on overpolicing Puerto Rico's applications for aid and creating more and more red tape could have just gone to helping Puerto Ricans. And most of the people who were found to have engaged in corruption related to FEMA policies were actually federal employees or contractors. So we know that it wasn't Puerto Ricans who were gaming the systems, but it was Puerto Ricans who were being policed.

FADEL: In the few seconds we have left, for people listening who want to help, what is the best way for them to help Puerto Ricans who need that right now?

BONILLA: I think all Puerto Ricans will say to contribute to community organizations that have already proven themselves in the wake of Maria. And there's one called Maria Fund that channels money to multiple organizations. So that's a good place to go.

FADEL: Professor Yarimar Bonilla is the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. Thank you so much for your time.

BONILLA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.