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Help for Puerto Rico

Aerial shot of people in Humacao, Puerto Rico, next to the words "S.O.S. Necesitamos Agua/Comida" written on the street
Help eventually came for Humacao. Hundreds of Humacaos are still hungry. (Photo credit Angelina Ruiz-Lambides)

Puerto Rico is in dire shape in the wake of Hurricane Maria. You probably know this if you’ve been keeping up with the news, but if you don’t keep up with the news, you might not know it, because basically no word is able to get out of Puerto Rico other ways. Nearly all methods of communication were disabled by the storm, leaving government figures, news organizations, and aid groups with generator-powered satellite hookups as the only ones able to get news to the mainland.

Reports that do make it out of Puerto Rico are, of course, dismal. People in Puerto Rico are desperate. They’ve been without electricity and clean water for over a week and aren’t expected to have them again for months in some areas. Homes and hospitals have been destroyed. People have died. Imagine a pedestrian clipped by a passing car, spun into traffic, and then flattened by a delivery truck, and then make that pedestrian into an island of 3.4 million people, and that’s the situation in Puerto Rico. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad.

The bad news

It’s bad. Seemingly obvious, yes, but seriously, really bad. Half of Puerto Ricans are without running water. Jut 36 of San Juan’s 69 hospitals are habitable. People have died in hospitals for lack of fuel for generators. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz described retirement homes as “human cages for people that are sick and unable to fend for themselves.” Another mayor reported that his people had no food or medicine and were drinking out of the same creek they used to bathe and wash clothes. Experts say the death toll could reach into the hundreds. It’s a nightmare. It’s an actual thing that a person might have a nightmare about.

Infrastructure. The need for material support can’t be ignored, but aid workers on the ground are encountering an additional roadblock: actual roadblocks. The streets are hard to navigate with heavy vehicles. Some ports are unnavigable, with container ships unable to get in or out. Workers are hard to come by to make deliveries and work at the often-damaged ports. This doesn’t mean that we should stop giving, or that the government and aid organizations should put a pause on delivery — just that residents of Puerto Rico are experiencing even further delays in receiving the help they need, because things aren’t bad enough for them already.

Puerto Ricans’ fellow citizens. Many other Americans, even the most well-meaning ones, are approaching Puerto Rico as an issue of foreign aid, rather than domestic aid. That’s because they don’t recognize that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. Puerto Ricans are American citizens. (Justice Sonia Sotomayor is not the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, because those aren’t a thing.) Complaining about money dedicated to assisting and rebuilding Puerto Rico is like complaining about money to rebuild Florida, since it, too, has been the target of plenty of hurricanes. If you wouldn’t object to rebuilding Texas because it’s such a disaster magnet, you don’t get to complain about Puerto Rico.

Government response. Over a week after Maria left Puerto Rico devastated, Trump has had little to say about its plight. Over the weekend, he devoted far more tweets and attention to the NFL protesters, without any reference to Puerto Rico — until he was essentially shamed into it, at which point he dropped a triple-tweeter to trash the territory for its infrastructure and financial issues and emphasize that they’ll still be on the hook for debts to his buddies on Wall Street.

Until just yesterday, he refused Congressional requests to suspend the Jones Act limiting inter-port shipping in the U.S. to ships sailing under the U.S. flag, which the government did do after Harvey and Irma. His excuse for his half-assed response was that aid to Puerto Rico is more challenging than aid to Texas or Florida because “this is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water,” like, holy shit, such a revelation. (You have to wonder if that’s a fact that he just recently learned, and whether he learned it before or after he learned that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.)

He’s spent his last several media encounters (and, of course, tweets) patting himself on the back for his disaster response, doing the thing where he swears [insert important person here] called him personally to tell him how awesome he is. (Cruz’s version was, “Again, Mr. Trump, we appreciate everything you are doing and we know it can be done faster. Help us save lives.”) And Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke said on Friday, “I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.”

The government has been putting more energy into swearing that their disaster response effort has been flawless and comprehensive than actually listening to people on the ground and providing aid how, where, and when they need it. Puerto Rico is not entirely but largely screwed for substantive assistance from the government, is my point, so it’s good that others are stepping in.

Actual good news

The U.S. Navy. The Navy is sending a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to provide medical support. It’s currently preparing to leave port in Virginia, and the trip is expected to take five days, so it won’t be on site immediately. But it’s loading up on supplies and medical staff to be able to provide care where hospitals have been decimated.

Royal Caribbean. Also coming through with the nautical support is Royal Caribbean, which has sent its cruise ship Adventure of the Seas to Puerto Rico to deliver much-needed supplies and carry refugees back to the mainland. It is making stops to drop off supplies and pick up as many as 3,300 passengers across three islands. Apparently, this is a thing they do — Adventure of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas evacuated a total of 1,700 people after Hurricane Irma.

Bees. When have bees ever been a good thing? I’ll tell you when: All the time, because pollination is crucial to our ecosystem and honey is delicious. Maria has left Puerto Rico essentially denuded of flowers, so people have taken to setting out trays of sugar water to give the bees something to snack on until they’re able to once again forage for themselves. It’s unfortunate that it’s necessary, but it’s cool that people are coming through for something like this that you might not think to think about. (Of course, pessimist that I am, I can’t help but think about swarms of house-bees who refuse to hunt for nectar once the flowers are again available because they’re so used to being fed by hand, like barn cats who won’t hunt once they’ve gotten a taste of Fancy Feast. Do your jobs, lazy bees.)

How you can be good news

Donate. That’s about it. Again, even though logistics are currently a huge challenge on the island, they’re still in dire need of supplies. Plenty of organizations are accepting cash donations.

Unidos por Puerto Rico, established by the First Lady of Puerto Rico
The One America Appeal, established by former U.S. presidents
International Medical Corps
Hispanic Federation
21 US Virgin Islands Relief Fund
Dominca Hurricane Maria Relief Fund
Caribbean Tourism Organization’s Hurricane Relief Fund

You can check Double the Donation to see if your employer is willing to match your donation. Local efforts are underway in New York, Miami, Philadelphia, and possibly a city near you. And once the island is stable enough to accommodate more people, volunteers can sign up with organizations like VOAD and All Hands Volunteers.

Talk about it. With government officials so sadly negligent and unresponsive, it’s more important than ever that people keep Puerto Rico — and other devastated territories like the U.S. Virgin Islands — in the news. Disaster fatigue is a thing, and it’s important that people not become so inured to news of Puerto Rico that they stop seeing it as a priority.

And not just talking about Trump, either, although he’s an unending font of negligence, bad decisions, and stupid statements. He’s a footnote in the general awfulness and extreme need of this horrific disaster. When sharing and signal-boosting, be sure to emphasize the bad situation, the need for help, and how people can help.

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