To date, our response to the crisis in Puerto Rico is far short on justice and compassion. The island, a territory of the United States, lies 2,257 miles from Iowa in the Caribbean Sea. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. They have U.S. passports. They serve in the U.S. military. They have a right to move to the mainland. They are one of us!
How many of us are concerned that some 85 percent of our fellow citizens remain without electricity three weeks after Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico? What worries do we have about waterborne illnesses that are sickening a growing number of the island’s 3.4 million inhabitants?
The Associated Press reports that many Puerto Ricans are drinking from local streams (contaminated by animal waste) because water has been shut off. People wait in long, hot lines for food, fuel and other necessities. Unemployment is already high at 10 percent, while many people wonder whether they’ll have jobs to return to. Agriculture, a small part of the economy, has been wiped out by the hurricane, which will lead to even higher food prices. Why are we not more concerned about our fellow citizens languishing in misery? Does the color of their skin make a difference, or the fact that Spanish is spoken on the island?
Change.org quotes Army Lt. General Russel Honore: “Puerto Rico is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina, and we had 20,000 federal troops, 20 ships and 40,000 National Guard.” The island’s most pressing needs, according to Change.org, are fuel to run hospitals and potable water to drink. Just a fraction of federal troops deployed during Katrina have been deployed to Puerto Rico. Where is the justice?
Puerto Rico struggled mightily before Hurricane Maria struck Sept. 20, and filed for bankruptcy in May. The territory has been trying to restructure more than $70 billion in debt, according to the website VOX. The bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was in shambles, and thus had no means of coping with the storm-related loss of the territory’s electric grid. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stepped in to make repairs, National Public Radio reports. But others in and outside the U.S. have found it necessary to fill in the gaping holes. A college student from Pittsburgh has raised $82,000 through social media “crowdfunding” to purchase necessities such as diapers, baby formula, water and batteries.
Some media outlets blame Puerto Rico for poor management of personnel and resources, which critics believe have exacerbated the crisis. Among the complaints: the rate of working-age men in Puerto Rico who receive Social Security disability payments is three times higher than the national average. School districts in the territory are top heavy with administrators.
U.S. policies, however, border on injustice toward Puerto Ricans. The Jones Act, for instance, forces Puerto Ricans to pay nearly double for U.S. goods through tariffs, fees and taxes, VOX reported. Any goods shipped from one American port to another must be on American-made-and-operated ships. Why are materials sitting in ports and not being distributed? Why no mobilization of the military, as happened after Hurricane Katrina? Why is it not FEMA’s job to deliver food and water on the island?
The United States has an obligation to assist Puerto Rico, no matter how long it takes or how many resources must be expended in the rebuilding process. And as Christians, we have a Gospel mandate to reach out to people in need with whatever means we have available. For starters, make a financial contribution to Catholic Charities USA (catholiccharitiesusa.org) or call: 1-800-919-9338. Or send a donation to Office of National Collections, Hurricane Maria Fund, P.O. Box 96278, Washington, D.C., 20090-6278.
Call on Congress to ensure that Puerto Rico receives needed aid, and that unjust laws, such as the Jones Act, are repealed. Pray for the people of Puerto Rico, and for all other U.S. citizens rebuilding in the wake of natural disasters.
We cannot allow prejudice, indifference or donor fatigue to interfere with our God-given mandate to respond to our fellow citizens with compassion, prayers and financial resources.