Puerto Rican Diaspora in Light of Hurricane Maria
Following Hurricane Maria’s ravaging path through the Caribbean, millions of Puerto Ricans were left without access to power, clean water and/or viable shelter. On top of increasing levels of emigration, this environmental catastrophe and the United States’ response worked to magnify and exponentially grow the economical, social and political problems within the island; many of which have come as a result of Puerto Rico’s colonial legacy with the United States. This essay will be an analysis of the continual Puerto Rican Diaspora. It will shine a light on the time period following Hurricane Maria where many locals felt forced, either by economic, social, or political pressure, to leave the island they had always called their home; aiming to explain how the United States’ response to the hurricane stimulated more immigration than ever before.
Considering the effect the hurricane had on the infrastructure and governmental systems Puerto Rico, it was and continues to be difficult for researches to collect data regarding power availability, access to clean water, reported deaths and movement of people following the hurricane. In order to properly examine the causes of emigration, data points concerning population flows and specific local and federal aid are imperative to developing a complete essay. The George Washington University Milken School of Public Health was the dominant institution analyzing the civilian deaths following the hurricane, which is important when analyzing outward push factors because it shows that the island was becoming extremely unsafe for some of the most vulnerable populations. Another academic institution logging trends post hurricane was the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. They using cell phone data, aid applications and other points of information, they were able to track post-Maria relocation of the internally displaced Puerto Rican residents and estimate the overall exodus count.
The first US flag was waved in Puerto Rico on October 18, 1898; marking when the US officially took control of the former Spanish colony (“U.S. Raised the Flag in Puerto Rico”). In February 1898, Puerto Rico, following a period of former Spanish colonialism, had just become an autonomous state, complete with ruling legal documents and constituents (“Puerto Rico’s Complicated History with the United States”). Puerto Rico became the first unincorporated territory of the United States and a new Puerto Rican civil government was established, with an American governor and five Puerto Rican cabinet members. Instead of respecting the formally democratically elected government, the U.S. favored creating its own colonial system on the island. Since it’s mandatory acquisition by the United States, local Puerto Rican efforts, welfare and needs have been put on the back burner; having been forcibly made to conform to the capitalist, white interests of the United States. Fast forward to Puerto Rico’s modern day standing within the United States government: they are allotted one, non-voting member of Congress who is an observer of the American political system but is not actively able to participate, even on matters regarding Puerto Rico. This puts mainly local financial matters in the Puerto Rican government hands, and plans on how to distribute aid flowing from the US.
When it comes to natural disasters, the federal government has a responsibility to help states and any place under its umbrella of imperialism; in the case of Puerto Rico, many see the problem as the United States being the primary responder to destructive natural events. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the arm of the US government which, since created through an executive order by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, now deals with the response and recovery efforts of areas hit by natural or manmade disasters (Baca, 2008). Being an island nation in the Caribbean that is subject to forceful weather patterns means that Puerto Rico and FEMA have worked together since its conception.
Concerning past migration trends, there have been multiple large waves of immigration most typically because of economic decline. With the decline of the sugar industry in the 1920s, high levels of unemployment, economic instability and poverty pushed the first wave of Puerto Rican residents out of the island and to the mainland United States. Three phrases of large immigration followed occurring first from 1900-1945, then 1946-1964 and then 1965-Present Day (Rodríguez, n.d.). Among these three time periods, it is important to note that the largest single year migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States mainland occurred in 1953 with 69,124 people; emigrating mostly to New York, New Jersey and Florida (Rivera, 2018). This internal movement is very similar to international migration, many times motivated by similar economic, social and political factors. Internal migration, in contrast to international migration, is defined as “a movement of people from one area of a country to another for the purpose or with the effect of establishing a new residence “(Natali, 2009). Similarly, internally displaced people can also be defined as, “persons or groups of persons who have been forced to obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not yet crossed an internationally recognized State border” (Egeland, 2004).
Research Findings and Situation Analysis:
Not one government agency, weather reporter or fortune teller could have predicted the damage done by Hurricane Maria, damage reflected in countless facets of Puerto Rican lifestyle. Aside from the lack of basic necessities such as food, water and shelter, not being able to have local coffee with the corner store’s sweet bread in the morning can be detrimental to morale in the island nation.
Among many of the challenges faced, the most prominent question seemed to wonder when the island would receive reliable, consistent power; when they could stop living off generators and hyper-inflated tanks of gas. Delayed infrastructure aid causes a huge problem to the entire economic and political sector of the island because without constant power, nothing can flow smoothly. Ongoing power failures in Puerto Rico have continued to sway citizens outwards. On April 14, 2018, almost seven months after Hurricane Maria, a black out swept the U.S. territory after an excavator accidentally hit a transmission line, severing power for 1.4 million people. After having two sweeping power outages within that one week, many Puerto Ricans were wondering if things were ever going to look up for the island home (Coto, 2018). FEMA contracted electricity companies are viewed as the culprits in this continual power play and are blamed for not being more careful or efficient. In regards to FEMA’s failure to secure private companies that are actually able to deliver much needed assistance to Puerto Rico, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. questioned whether FEMA’s shoddy businesses dealings are on purpose and believes that they are failing to safeguard the tax revenue paid by Puerto Rican residents for these exact, desperately needed goods and services (Associated Press, 2018).
While local and federal workers are scrambling to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid before the next hurricane season, many wonder if these efforts are being efficient. In an attempt to remedy this problem, House Democrats sent an open letter to FEMA administrator Brock Long asking him to extend the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers time on the island so it can continue fixing power lines. They were scheduled to withdraw personnel on May 18, 2018, leaving thousands still without power. While FEMA has allocated more than $10.5 billion dollars in aid to Puerto Rico as of April 1, 2018 for Hurricane Maria and Irma, the question persists whether or not this money is being used most effectively, and many people don’t think so. In FEMA’s defense, according to its fact sheet on Puerto Rico, it has been contractually compelled to give more than $1.1 billion of the $10.5 billion to hurricane survivors for new home rental, repairs to homes and other individual recovery efforts, and spent $1.4 billion in grants to rebuild roads, buildings and other infrastructure, medical services and other public facilities (“Obligated Funding for Puerto Rico”, 2018).
An important part of daily life which seemed to have been overlooked by FEMA officials when divvying up aid was the public school system. Already facing problems such as empty classrooms, under-enrollment and lack of resources, officials announced the closure of 283 public schools for the 2018-2019 school year. 40,000 students have left Puerto Rico’s schools since May 2017, the Puerto Rican Education Secretary Julia Keleher said (Chavez, 2018). It is suspected that while some of the students may have dropped out, majority of them have come to the mainland with their families for educational opportunities. Hoping for federal assistance, Puerto Rico’s Education Department (PRDE) submitted an application for assistance from the Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations (K-12 Restart) program. The program, created in the wake of several natural disasters across the U.S. last year, awards state education departments federal dollars based on their needs which states can then distribute to their local schools. Puerto Rico was awarded $589,170,000 in April, 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Education (“Secretary DeVos Announces New Federal Disaster Assistance…”, 2018).
While the Restart program may have helped, people continued to flow out of the island. Approximately 135,000 Puerto Rican residents have relocated to the United States mainland after the hurricane, according to a report released in 2017 by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. They tracked this movement through logging disaster-assistance claims and official address changes. While this study is one of the most comprehensive done, it is easy to speculate that these methods might substantially undercount the real amount of residents who departed the island following the devastating hurricane. It’s possible that not everyone who left filed a claim or have yet to change their official address, which could seem like an afterthought to some when uprooting one’s life.
Of those who migrated, almost one thousand were living in temporary housing provided by FEMA (Morales, 2018). Advocates argue that FEMA has refused to activate other forms of long-term housing assistance that could benefit Hurricane Maria victims. Due to expiring housing vouchers, Hurricane Maria’s internally displaced peoples are once again being rushed to find new living arrangements. Speaking on Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, it is interesting to note that while Hurricane Katrina victims were allowed 27 months of transitional period, Puerto Rican migrants are only afforded 11 months. This is a clear representation of the administration’s blatant discrimination of Puerto Rican and Latinx individuals. Key aspects of why Puerto Ricans are moving away from the island coincide with several key factors of what drive people to move, according to a NGO Background paper on the Refugee and Migration interface. Three of the most prominent reasons affecting the Puerto Rican population and residents include environmental natural and man-made disasters and lack of access to natural resources, family reunification and joining Diaspora movements, and a search for better economic prospects (“NGO Background paper on the Refugee and Migration interface”, 2001). Though it is proving hard to find a population migration scheme similar to that of Puerto Rico, it is estimated that between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Rican residents will depart the island annually in the time following of Hurricane Maria. From 2017-2019, it is estimated that Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 residents or 14% of the population (Meléndez, 2017). In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same amount of people in the span of a couple of years because of Hurricane Maria as the island lost during a prior decade of economic stagnation. Projections indicate that Florida is the state most likely to be affected by this exodus – with an estimated annual flow of between 40,000 and 82,000 people (Meléndez, 2017).
Role of Organizations:
It is difficult to determine how the United States’, and specifically FEMA’s, response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has affected the emigrating population. While there are large movements of people across the Atlantic Ocean, governmental agencies (namely FEMA) who distribute relief believe that on-island distribution is at the heart of supply shortage and push factor for migrants. Issues concerning destroyed roads, shortages of fuel, and blocked roads all hinder the relief agency’s ability to provide relief, and even for the truckers to come to work. FEMA claims that because of this, there are ships carrying supplies that are waiting to enter the port of San Juan, and plenty more that are supposed to deliver aid on stand-by in the US. FEMA argues that it is not their part that is lacking, but the problem lies in the “last mile” in getting aid to those who need it the most.
Originally the Jones Act made English the official language (in 1920), but most importantly requires all goods shipped between US ports to be transported by US vessels, operated primarily by Americans (Carey, 2017). Sometimes there is support for a Jones Act waiver in emergencies where there is a shortage of vessels. This law comes into the spotlight frequently when looking at relief headed to Puerto Rico because it means that there are extra steps in transporting needed goods and services, which translates to delayed vital help. This law is often waived because it also slows international aid from coming in. While as internally displaced people, Puerto Rican residents’ prime resource is the US government, it is important to recognize the part that international humanitarian assistance can play in getting the island back on its feet.
Solutions and Reforms:
Due to Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States, I believe it would be in Puerto Rico’s best interest to seek greater amounts of autonomy when dealing with internal affairs so they are able to express sovereignty over their lands.
Conclusion & WOW Moments:
Puerto Rican residents have been pushed out the island for decades but due to recent environmental events and the United States’/FEMA’s response, people chose to migrate in higher numbers than before. A WOW moment for me was learning about Puerto Rico’s autonomy before becoming a US territory and how that has all played out.
Puerto Rican Diaspora in Light of Hurricane Maria