An update on aid efforts in Puerto Rico: what’s still happening, what’s failing, and what’s worrying

by | Oct 24, 2017 | Headlines | Comments

A few weeks ago we gave a comprehensive look at what was happening with aid in Puerto Rico after the hurricanes. Since a few weeks have passed, we thought it would be pertinent to reopen the issue and look at what is happening now, what’s working, what’s not, and what still needs to be done.

What is the situation in Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico is still seriously suffering in the aftermath of Maria and Irma. Rains continue to bring flooding and mudslides. 80% of the islands are still without power, with 5,000 citizens remaining in shelters. Rural areas, and areas near rivers and creeks, have fared particularly badly, and can’t clean themselves up before a new flood or mudslide comes. The damage continues to grow. Water is scarce on the islands, and residents have resorted to getting water from known tainted sources, because, they can’t get water elsewhere. More than 35% of residents still don’t have access to clean drinking water. People have been accessing tainted water at three, so called, superfund sites. The water is contaminated with dangerous chemicals, but people are desperate and thirsty. The EPA rushed to take samples from the super-fund sites, and, luckily, three wells at the Dorado superfund site were declared safe to drink. The hurricanes also damaged 20 of the 51 sewage treatment plants on the islands, leading raw sewage to flow into rivers and streams; sources the now desperate people are using for bathing, washing clothes, and drinking. The dirty water is already being suspected as causing over 70 cases of waterborne diseases. The FDA is now working with pharmaceutical and medical device companies on and off the islands to prevent shortages of medical products.

The official death toll on the islands from the hurricanes is said to be 48, although a Vox news investigation claims the number could be closer to 450. A couple of Congress members have requested an investigation into the official death toll as a result of the findings.

Some positive news exists, in that some schools in San Juan and Mayagüez open Tuesday the 24. They will be the first schools to open since Maria hit. Julia Keleher, the Puerto Rican Secretary of Education said, “Once we are certain that our students are safe we will continue to open schools.” The Secretary also noted that some schools in Bayamon and Ponce are scheduled to open October 30. Other schools have been destroyed, and many that haven’t are being used as shelters and community centers, which will make opening for class more difficult.

How is the US government doing?

In our first comprehensive look at aid we noted that the US government had deployed troops, FEMA, the USNS Comfort, and had temporarily lifted the Jones act. On the USNS Comfort over 100 patients have been treated, and the ship even celebrated a birth onboard. However, the operations of the ship have come under fire. The ship is only at 13% capacity. Patients are suffering across the islands, but there is a very specific bureaucratic procedure in order for a patient to qualify for treatment on the ship, and few medical staff know, or have the time to complete, the process as they scramble to keep their patients alive. Local medical centers have to contact a central medical coordinating center in San Juan if they are unable to care for a patient. The center will then determine if the case is dire enough to transfer the patient to a different hospital, or to the US Army support hospital. The last option is being transferred to the ship. In order to gain a transfer to the ship, the Puerto Rican Department of Health has to make a referral, however there have been few recommendations. Governor Rosselló has called for the rules to be revised in order to facilitate the transfer of patients in need of care, but this has yet to happen.

The government has been criticized heavily for its slow pace of action to help Puerto Rico, and comparing the government response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria to the response in the mainland after Hurricane Irma shows a lack of compassion. The Jones Act was waived two days before Hurricane Irma hit, to allow aid to flow easily to the affected states, but after Hurricane Maria it took 8 days to waive the Jones act, and, although Puerto Rico still needs a lot of aid, the waiver for the act expired after only 10 days and has not been lifted since.

FEMA’s response has also been seriously criticized. They have been ineffectual, and slow to distribute the aid that there is. They blame this on the fact that they are not typically first responders, and that they rely on the local government structures to help them distribute aid. For many critics, this is a poor explanation, and they blame a political war and the lack of significant troop involvement. FEMA has also not authorized full reconstruction aid to Puerto Rico (although the government has requested it), even though they have given it to the US Virgin Islands. This kind of aid was granted to Texas just ten days following Hurricane Harvey. President Trump has the power to request this kind of aid for Puerto Rico from FEMA, yet he has not done it either. FEMA held a badly planned event in Yabucoa, one of the hardest hit areas in Puerto Rico on Wednesday the 18. The event was supposed to help people register for FEMA aid. People lined up for hours, some even overnight, without access to food, water, or nearby toilets in order to be sure they got registered, as many suspected it would be the last time FEMA would come to that part of the islands. Leaders of the event did not specify what time they would arrive, which led to an air of desperation and frustration at the event site. Locals expressed frustration that FEMA had not helped the area, only occasionally distributing some bottled water and MREs, but not nearly enough.

President Trump’s trip was also a complete and utter farce. During his several hour stop in Puerto Rico, his words to survivors were without sympathy calling the hurricane not a “real catastrophe” and throwing paper towels at survivors. When criticized widely in the media, he took to twitter for another of his famous rants about ‘fake media’. He has also threatened to pull FEMA and the military support from the island in a Twitter tantrum. His tantrum left his staff reeling to reassure Puerto Rico that it would not be abandoned. Many current and former White House officials mentioned that FEMA and military troops are still in Texas working on responding to Hurricane Harvey, and that military troops stayed in New Orleans for nearly a year after Katrina. It would be unprecedented to pull aid so fast after a disaster of this caliber.

Congress, on the other hand, seems to recognize that Puerto Rico is suffering and has recently passed a bill for $35 billion for disaster relief funds, part of which will go towards aiding Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan toured Puerto Rico by helicopter and vowed to continue pressing congress and Trump for longer term aid solutions for the islands. Senator Charles Schumer has recently criticized the mismanaged response by the government, and has suggested, in order to improve the recovery response, that the White House should appoint a Chief Executive of response and recovery for Puerto Rico. In his idea, this executive would have a direct line to the President and other important officials in Puerto Rico and the Federal government to better organize the response. The idea could help efforts, and potentially make things less contentious.

There was an awkward joint interview in the oval office with Trump, Governor Rosselló and the cabinet members over the response of FEMA and the government to hurricane Maria. Trump gives himself and his government a perfect 10 for their response. When the same question is posed to Roselló, he diplomatically avoided the question, and was quick to praise Trump, quite possibly because he knows if he doesn’t, Trump will threaten to pull all aid again. However, he used the opportunity to reiterate exactly what a tragedy Maria caused, and how much suffering there still is. Trump was quick to place blame on local officials for any problems, and to give himself and his government a pat on the back for their response, and to reiterate that FEMA and military support won’t stay in Puerto Rico forever. Rosselló, always the diplomat, refrained from directly disagreeing with the President, but steered the conversation multiple times back to the scale of the problems facing Puerto Rico and exactly how much there is still to be done, while the president went on about healthcare and uranium.

A major scandal has also arisen regarding federal disaster relief workers in Puerto Rico. One doctor quit the team after witnessing a gross misuse of federal tax dollar funded aid, in which medical relief tents were cleared of supplies in order to provide the medical workers with ‘spa treatments’. Those working used federal tax dollars in order to pay for cut-rate manicures and pedicures given by local survivors. The doctor also criticised the medical staff for wearing flip-flops in areas designated as sterile. The incident has shockingly not received a lot of press considering how seriously disrespectful it was.

What about the celebrities?

Our in depth article also detailed some surprisingly generous, and often very personal, efforts by celebrities, often of Puerto Rican origins, to provide aid or raise funds for Puerto Rico. The celebrity response has been huge, and celebrities have continued to push for aid for Puerto Rico, perhaps in response to the federal government’s lackluster efforts .

Jennifer Lopez was featured in our last article as she donated $1 million towards relief efforts, but that wasn’t enough for the star who personally organized the “One Voice: Somos Live!” a star-studded benefit concert. The proceeds of which went to a variety of organizations providing relief in Puerto Rico including Feeding America, Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, Unidos for Puerto Rico, United Way and UNICEF. Performances were given by celebrities broadcasting from two different locations, Miami and Los Angeles, and included performances by Marc Anthony, Camila, Gente de Zona, Nicky Jam, DJ Khaled, Daddy Yankee, Magic!, Nacho, Prince Royce, Romeo Santos, Alejandro Sanz, Demi Lovato, Maroon 5, Ricky Martin, Gwen Stefani, Stevie Wonder, Chris Martin, Jamie Foxx, Mary J. Blige, Andra Day, Maxwell and Julia Michaels. The event also had a telethon featuring celebs like Kim Kardashian West, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ellen DeGeneres answering phones to take donation pledges. The event and telethon raised over $35 million. JLo didn’t stop with the concert, she has also organized an effort with UNICEF. Every year UNICEF in the US organizes a Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF campaign, in which children take around buckets to collect coins for UNICEF while trick-or-treating. Thanks to JLO this year’s funds will go towards aiding children around the world who have been affected by natural disasters, including children in Puerto Rico.

The famous Chef Jose Andres has been cooking up and distributing thousands of meal all over Puerto Rico through his nonprofit World Central Kitchen (donate here). His team works everyday to assemble, literally, thousands of meals. He boasts that they have served nearly 1.5 million meals in the last few weeks since they set up camp in Puerto Rico. They are operating out of the Coliseo, where he has a few hundred volunteers. In one day they can serve 60,000 meals, and 25,000 sandwiches. His team also packs meals to be delivered to parts of the island that are still difficult to access, and for the people in those remote areas, his team’s meal may be the only meal they eat that day as necessities are still scarce in many parts of the island. His group has served more meals than the American Red Cross, and, while FEMA has technically served more meals, they almost exclusively serve MREs and cold meals, while the World Central Kitchen serves hot meals.

Carlos Beltran, a famous major league baseball player, has worked with his foundation, the MLB, and the state of New York to deliver 160,000 pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico by jet. Beltran himself has donated $1 million to relief efforts, and New York State, which has a major concentration of the Puerto Rican diaspora, has sent 433,000 bottles of water, 19,000 canned goods, 59,000 packages of baby wipes, 89,000 packages of diapers, 40,000 containers of baby food, 15,000 juice pouches, 8,600 solar lamps, 6,300 pounds of dry food and 10 generators to the island, as well as having sent state police and troops to assist the island.

The family of Aubrey Plaza, has organized a private screening of her latest movie “Ingrid Goes West” which will be followed by a Q&A session with the actress and directors via Skype. All proceeds from the event will go to the American Red Cross. In New Mexico, the Breaking Bad actors will host an event in Albuquerque on the 23 to benefit Puerto Rico. The event will feature a silent auction, a raffle, and entertainment. Chelsea Handler has personally donated $1 million to Unidos Por Puerto Rico, and Stephen Colbert raised another $1 million with his #Puberme challenge. Scarlett Johansson has organized, along with her fellow ‘Avengers’ cast mates, a benefit reading of the play ‘Our Town’. The funds generated from the performance will benefit the Hurricane Maria Community Relief and Recovery Fund.

While they aren’t big celebrities, the Puerto Rican Symphony Orchestra has played and scheduled performances in a move they hope will bolster the spirits of those still suffering. They will give free performances across the island, playing a medley of classical pieces, Bolero folk music, and other popular Puerto Rican styles.

What about the big companies?

In a bid to bring jobs and hopefully a bright future to the island, Puerto Rico has officially put in a bid to play host to the new second Amazon headquarters. Wherever the new headquarters will be built, that area will gain 50,000 job opportunities and it comes with billions of dollars in investments, an opportunity Puerto Rico doesn’t want to lose.

Whitefish Energy Holdings, a firm based out of Montana has been tapped by PREPA to help rebuild their damaged power grids. The company was tapped due to its experience working in mountainous regions. This isn’t an act of charity, they have signed a contract worth $300 million to rebuild about 100 miles worth of power lines. Other companies being contracted to work in storm ravaged Puerto Rico are Fluor Corp and Western Solutions. The Army Corps of Engineers contracted out these two corporations to remove debris and restore power, and to provide generators to stabilize the power in the capital, respectively. The companies are working as quickly as possible in order to try to meet Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s goal of getting 95% of the islands’ power functional by Christmas. The Whitefish employees are even going as far as being dangled from helicopters in order to repair the transmission lines in mountainous and hard to reach areas.

Tesla has previously shipped several hundred of their Powerwall battery packs to Puerto Rico, and has recently pledged to send even more. The Powerwall battery packs are about three and a half feet tall and about two and a half feet wide. They are an automated power system that doesn’t require maintenance, and, according to the website, “Surplus energy produced by your solar panels is stored in Powerwall to power your home at night. Powerwall protects your home during a power outage, keeping your lights, Wi-Fi and refrigerator running.” The packs are also water and dust proof. Currently, Tesla is focused on getting these packs to hospitals and medical centers to ensure that they have stable energy. After that, Elon Musk is in talks with Governor Rosselló on how Tesla could help with rebuilding the Puerto Rico power grid to make it more sustainable in the future.

In fact, getting the islands powered by solar energy while the grid is being rebuilt is a popular idea. Several other companies have donated solar supplies to the islands. A San Francisco based solar company called Sunrun worked in cooperation with the nonprofit groups Empowered by Light (donate here) and Givepower to install a solar grid for a fire station in Barrio Obrero, which is now the first solar powered fire station in Puerto Rico. A spokesperson for Empowered by light has criticized the federal government for focusing on distributing diesel as a solution for the islands’ power problems instead of looking towards more long-term, durable, and sustainable methods. The Solar Energy Industries Association has received pledges of more than $1.2 million in solar products and monetary contributions for hurricane relief. The company Sonnen has pledged to deliver battery and microgrid products in a similar effort to that of Tesla. New Star Solar, a Utah based company, sponsored a shipment by jetliner which contained about $300,00 work of solar panels and generators. Solar power is not only sustainable, but it is a way to get the most essential services and business a daily-rechargeable power system that can be deployed until the power grid is restored, and even after, which can be used as a backup in case of a future disaster.

In an effort to improve telecommunications on the island, Alphabet has deployed their project Loon balloons. These are LTE equipped balloons that are hovering around the island providing internet service to cell phones equipped with LTE capabilities. The group is working with AT&T, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Aviation Authority, FEMA, and other groups to try to get telecommunications up and running to the parts of the island that are suffering the most. The balloons launched from Nevada and “flew” to Puerto Rico. The FCC has allowed up to 30 balloons to go into ‘orbit’ around Puerto Rico, although, so far, there are only a ‘handful’ of balloons in operation. The balloons work via solar power, and are therefore unable to provide service at night, however daytime service is better than no service, as more than 68% of cell towers on the islands are still unoperational.

A small startup drone delivery company called Dash, has been volunteering in Puerto Rico to deliver supplies to areas that are still inaccessible by delivering supply packages attached to parachutes. While they are currently operating by plane, they are hoping that soon they will be able to deliver the supplies by drones which will then drop the parachuted packages in the areas that need it most.

Cruise Lines are still doing their part to help the Caribbean in general, by pushing tourists to continue booking cruises in the area. San Juan has already welcomed several cruise ships since Maria hit, and the cruise lines advocate that keeping business flowing to the area is a good way to support recovery.

What’s the news concerning nonprofit and charitable efforts?

You may recall we talked about an organization called All Sato Rescue as being a viable option for donation if you were interested in helping out the islands’ animals. The shelter has already started sending shipments of animals for adoption to the mainland. As of October 13 the shelter had sent more than 200 dogs and cats to shelters across New England.

A group of individuals from Columbia have collaborated with the Humanitarian team at OpenStreetMap to create crowd-sourced maps of Puerto Rico and other hurricane ravaged islands in the Caribbean to help groups on the ground navigate to more remote towns and villages where traditional maps may be lacking in information. The teams analyzed satellite data to add roads and landmarks to opensource maps. Teams on the ground could then flag areas on the maps that were impassible to warn other relief groups seeking clear ways to those areas.

Oxfam, a nonprofit that doesn’t usually assist the US, has publicly denounced the federal government’s efforts to aid Puerto Rico and has decided to step in. They claimed the government was working too slow and was ineffectual, and has promised to step in to advocate for Puerto Rico in Congress and with the federal government as well as to channel resources and support to the island. It is giving financial and logistical support to the Mayor’s office of San Juan to help them distribute 1,000 butane gas stoves each equipped with 4 extra tanks of fuel to the poorest areas around the city.

While technically not a charity or nonprofit group, three agronomists have partnered together to create a seed drive. The seed drive aims at helping Puerto Rican farmers restore agriculture to the island after the hurricanes wiped out crops across the island. They are attempting to expand their efforts by partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, seed companies and non-governmental organizations.

New York isn’t the only state working for aid. In Ohio the organizations Cincinnati for Puerto Rico and A Child’s Hope International organized a volunteer event to help pack “hope boxes” to send to Puerto Rico. The boxes contain supplies to make 100 gallons of drinking water, 216 high-protein meals, Spanish language newspapers, blankets, water buckets, and shoes. Businesses in Virginia Beach also chartered a flight filled with supplies. More than 60 restaurants, food trucks, and vendors in Connecticut have collaborated to create the CT loves PR promotion. Participating venues will provide Puerto Rican inspired dishes from the 21-28 of October. 100% of the proceeds will benefit Unidos Por Puerto Rico, an organization we featured in our last article. Mississippi is even reaching out in a somewhat unorthodox way, by offering to house 1,200 federal prisoners from the islands. The private efforts funded by business and smaller local charity organizations across the country are too numerous to count. Where the government is failing individuals are stepping up.

Speaking of Unidos Por Puerto Rico, their website breaks down exactly where and how your donations have helped through a series of infographics. You can see the donation distributions by municipality, the most donated items, the most dispatched items, how many donations they have received, and how many donations they have dispatched. Their operations lend a welcome air of transparency in an aid situation fraught with problems and blame.

If you are still wanting to donate to an organization, please refer to our list at the end of this article.