Four Years after Hurricane Maria the Need for Parity and Building Back Better in Puerto Rico is More Urgent Than Ever

By Frankie Miranda, President and CEO, Hispanic Federation

When I visited Puerto Rico this summer, I met with community and business leaders from across the archipelago. They each shared hopeful stories of resilience, progress, and vision for the future, but also of struggle, frustration, and exhaustion. While we ate, the restaurant lights flickered on and off, a result of an unreliable electrical grid. Four years after Hurricane Maria battered the island, the lights offered a constant reminder of just how precarious life still is for the more than 3 million U.S. citizens who call Puerto Rico home.

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, right after Hurricane Irma, we could not have imagined the devastation and marginalization the island would endure in the following years. While hurricanes in the Caribbean are nothing new, Hurricane Maria’s ferocity exposed the vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s decaying energy infrastructure, an inadequate social safety-net, the impacts of a profound financial crisis, and a stark example of undeniable federal discrimination. It’s among the worst natural disasters to hit our country, resulting in the longest blackout in U.S. history and at least 3,000 lives lost.

Since then, a painfully slow recovery from Maria has been exacerbated by intentional and callous interference from the Trump administration, strict austerity measures enacted by a federally imposed fiscal control board, a series of major earthquakes in January 2020, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. All of which have further destabilized the island and increased its vulnerability. The poverty rate in Puerto Rico, 44 percent pre-pandemic, remains alarmingly higher than any of the U.S. states, families continue to find themselves forced to move away, and the need for the island to receive its fair share of federal funds has never been greater.

Yet, continued attacks on federal financial support of vulnerable Puerto Ricans threaten to undermine economic recovery efforts and hamper efforts to protect the island from future threats. This November, the Biden Justice Department will appear before the Supreme Court of the U.S. to defend the United States policy of discrimination and exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from federal anti-poverty programs, such as Supplemental Security Income. These attacks are nothing new, but they are wildly inappropriate and hypocritical, especially when the level of need is so great, and President Biden pledged to ensure parity for Puerto Rico during his campaign. These federal programs have been an essential lifeline for lifting Americans out of poverty and U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are entitled by the U.S. Constitution to the same opportunity. It is President Biden’s responsibility to end this unconstitutional discrimination today.

Four years after Hurricane Maria battered the island, the lights offered a constant reminder of just how precarious life still is for the more than 3 million U.S. citizens who call Puerto Rico home.

The recent American Rescue Plan Act, which includes more than $7 billion in fiscal relief funding for Puerto Rico, is a good step towards the change needed to make real impacts on the island. Thankfully, the Biden administration has begun the process of removing barriers to the billions of dollars promised to Puerto Rico four years ago by Congress to help with rebuilding. The job now is to ensure it reaches those who most need it; and used to build back better in ways that protect people on the front lines of climate change. Puerto Rico’s full recovery from the pandemic is also paramount. The Biden administration must also equitably include Puerto Rico in the Build Back Better budget reconciliation package, ensure parity in federal benefits to the most vulnerable, and pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Using these federal investments to build stronger, smarter, and sustainable renewable energy systems, especially distribution scale, rooftop solar with storage, will not only create stable jobs that grow the economy and build modern infrastructure that can withstand future hurricanes, but most importantly, it will save lives. Puerto Rico, with its commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2050, is ready to become a leader in the nation’s transition away from fossil fuels and in the fight against climate change. Federal funding must not undermine the island’s goals toward resilience and away from vulnerable transmission systems.

Four years since Hurricane Maria, and the first under this new Administration and Congress, we should both reflect on how discrimination and the lack of support compounded already horrific outcomes. But we must also take action. The opportunity to change course and rebuild a stronger Puerto Rico has never been more possible. We must honor all the victims of Hurricane Maria by preparing for a radically different future, recognizing that the impacts of climate change will result in more severe weather continuing to wreak devastation in the absence of strong, community-led mitigation.

Puerto Rico must stop being an afterthought for the federal government. Puerto Ricans must stop being treated like second-class citizens. Long-term planning and equitable investment are key to ensuring a positive future for Puerto Rico and the people who live there. We are living in a unique time in our history where many are taking seriously the need to dismantle structural racism for the health and stability of the country. That fight should include dismantling over 100 years of systemic discrimination against Puerto Ricans; this administration now has a unique chance to accomplish this.

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