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Puerto Ricans Plead for Aid Amid Catastrophe

Millions of US citizens in the territory remain without adequate food, water and fuel.

Six days after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, 3.4 million US citizens in the territory remain without adequate food, water and fuel. But as the massive crisis became clear over the weekend, President Trump failed to weigh in, instead lashing out at sports players who joined in protest against racial injustice. It took the president five full days to respond, with comments that appeared to blame the island for its own misfortune. We examine the dire situation in Puerto Rico with Yarimar Bonilla, Puerto Rican scholar, who wrote in The Washington Post, “Why would anyone in Puerto Rico want a hurricane? Because someone will get rich.” And we speak with Puerto Ricans in New York who have been unable to reach loved ones after nearly a week.


AMY GOODMAN: We begin today in Puerto Rico, where six days after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island, more than three-and-a-half million US citizens remain without adequate food, water and fuel. The Category 4 storm brought record rainfall and catastrophic flooding, destroying power lines, left the entire island in the dark. Authorities warn some areas could be without electricity for six months. At least 13 people have died so far — at least that’s what’s known. Many parts of the island are cut off.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said, quote, “What we’re now seeing is that the aftermath is almost more horrific than the actual passing of the hurricane itself,” unquote. Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló has asked for more government aid to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, especially in the area — in the interior and areas not reached by relief efforts. This is a resident and mayor of Toa Baja, a city on the northern part of the island.

TOA BAJA RESIDENT: [translated] We don’t have communications. I have no telephone. We have nothing. We do not have supplies. In my house, we do not have water. There is no gas. The lines are long.

MAYOR BERNARDO MÁRQUEZ GARCÍA: [translated] We are in the process of getting up, recovering. These days we’ve been organizing our resources to be able to reach the street and start to bring the oasis, the water the people need so much.

AMY GOODMAN: As the crisis in Puerto Rico became clear over the weekend, President Donald Trump failed to weigh in, instead lashing out at athletes who have joined a growing protest movement started by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick against racial injustice. It took President Trump five full days to respond on Twitter, with comments that drew criticism for what some called a lack of empathy, blaming the island itself. In a series of tweets, Trump appeared to blame Puerto Rico, writing, “Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble.. …It’s [sic] old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars…. …owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities–and doing well.” That was the tweet. This comes as Trump has yet to visit Puerto Rico, even after he visited Texas and Florida after Hurricane Harvey and Irma. Both states voted for him.

This comes as hospitals that were flooded are depending on diesel generators to keep patients alive. Meanwhile, 70,000 people have been ordered to evacuate the areas around the Guajataca Dam, which was damaged by Hurricane Maria and is at risk of collapsing at any minute.

For more, we’re joined by Yarimar Bonilla, associate professor of anthropology and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University, a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. She just wrote a piece in The Washington Post headlined “Why would anyone in Puerto Rico want a hurricane? Because someone will get rich,” she wrote. She’s also one of the founders of the Puerto Rico Syllabus.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Professor.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: First of all, have you been able to reach your family in Puerto Rico?

YARIMAR BONILLA: I have. I tell my friends that I — just like many of us in the diaspora have survivor’s guilt, I have communicator’s guilt, because I’ve actually been able to talk to my family members throughout the storm. My mom did not lose her landline. And so we’ve been in close communication. And my aunts and uncles have also been able to communicate with me.

AMY GOODMAN: How is she doing?

YARIMAR BONILLA: She’s doing OK. She’s eating canned soup and peanut butter and crackers, and hanging on.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about the island overall, the catastrophe that we’re seeing unfold.

YARIMAR BONILLA: The devastation is — just challenges the imagination. There is no town in Puerto Rico that was not affected by the storm. Power is out everywhere. Communications are out. There is no water in about 80 percent of the island. And people were not — they were prepared for maybe one or two days of waiting for these services to come back, but they were not prepared for five, six days, a whole week that’s about to pass, without assistance.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the US response. Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, though many people might wish it’s independent, having very little representation in Washington. All the people in Puerto Rico are US citizens.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yes. And it’s not just a matter of them being citizens, it’s also a matter of them being an integral part of the nation, serving in the wars, being also deeply connected to their family members. The Puerto Rican nation spans beyond simply the territory. It’s also the many Puerto Ricans in the continental US, who haven’t been able to reach their family members.

And I think everyone has really lost their patience with the US government, because, after Irma, Trump had said that he would visit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, because it’s important to remember that it’s not just one hurricane that has hit Puerto Rico. It’s two hurricanes, back to back. And already Irma caused significant devastation. And so, now, the second hurricane was a second blow that completely knocked out the island. And so, the last I saw from the government, they’ve had some FEMA personnel already arrive, but the long-term assistance, they say, won’t come until October, mid-October perhaps. And they’ve also not lifted restrictions for non-US vessels to be able to take aid. So not only is the US government not helping Puerto Rico, it’s also not allowing its neighbors to help Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is astounding.

YARIMAR BONILLA: It boggles the mind.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain this. If this was a Caribbean island, an independent nation, they could get aid from anywhere they wanted.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Absolutely. There’s already people from the Caribbean states that have traveled to Dominica, to other places in the Caribbean, to assess damage, to help. And our neighbors — our neighbors in the Caribbean want to help us, and they’re not able to because non-US ships are not able to enter Puerto Rico. And also, the towers are down in the airport, the communication towers, so air travel is very limited, as well. And so, Puerto Rico is blocked.

And it’s important to know that there are — my mom is, fortunately, in a safe space that’s not flooded, but there are people who are trapped in their homes with flooded waters that are also contaminated waters, with diesel, with also sewers that have overflowed. There’s been cemeteries where, in the town of Lares, the dead cadavers are floating in the streets. I don’t know how to emphasize enough the severity of the situation. It really boggles the mind. And what boggles the mind even more is the lack of attention and the lack of really any kind of empathy towards these lives that are completely at risk.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to come back to discuss this dire situation in Puerto Rico. We’ll hear from the San Juan mayor. We’ll hear from Puerto Ricans here in New York. Something like 10 percent of New Yorkers are Puerto Rican. Is that right, Professor?

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yeah, and a huge — it’s not just New York. In Florida, Atlanta, Texas — Puerto Ricans are everywhere throughout the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Not to mention in Puerto Rico.


AMY GOODMAN: They are American citizens.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Temporal” by Buscabulla, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We are talking about Puerto Rico. We continue to discuss the devastation there. This is San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz describing the challenges faced by people living on the island as it tries to regain its footing after Hurricane Maria.

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: The sheer pain. People’s eyes, they’re kind of glazed, not because of what has happened, but because of the difficulty of what will come and what may come. And I know we’re not going to get to everybody in time. I hoped — two days ago, I said I was concerned about them. Now I know we won’t get to everybody in time, because we have to canvas home by home. Communications is very — they’re very spotty. So we have to literally canvas house by house by house. But what I would ask is not only for Puerto Rico, for the entire Caribbean, that has been hit so hard with this, do not forget us, and do not let us feel alone.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who spent much of her time in the water trying to save people. You see her with a jacket on, going from sometimes up to her waist in water. Our guest today is professor Yarimar Bonilla. Can you talk about the mayor?

YARIMAR BONILLA: I’ve been really impressed with the seriousness with which she has taken on her role. I feel like when she speaks, you can tell how challenged and daunted she feels and how hard she’s trying. And she said repeatedly that her biggest fear is that — not even her biggest fear, because she knows it. She knows there’s people they’re not going to be able to reach. There’s people right now who don’t have insulin. There’s people who need their medication. There’s people who have run out of drinking water and are trapped in high-rise apartments. She knows. She knows the challenges she’s under.

AMY GOODMAN: It seems like there’s a bit of a battle between her and the governor, Rosselló, of two different parties.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yeah, when the hurricane first hit, there was really an attempt to have a kind of united front. And they had also — there’s also been an attempt to have a united front in Puerto Rico even before the hurricane season to deal with the debt. And the governor had brought politicians together from different spectrums to lobby Washington. And it seemed like that unity was going to continue, but Rosselló has recently criticized Yulín for turning people away at the evacuation centers. They’ve sent health inspectors to the evacuation centers that are working when there’s other evacuation centers that don’t have electricity. And so there’s — I think the rivalries that exist, because they’re from different parties, are now starting to show.

AMY GOODMAN: The poverty in Puerto Rico, can you talk about what is part and parcel — you really have several hurricanes here, I mean, not just the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico, but the hurricane of devastation. You write, “Why would anyone in Puerto Rico want a hurricane? Because someone will get rich.”

YARIMAR BONILLA: Well, and as I said in that piece, Puerto Rico was already in a state of emergency before the hurricane hit, already double the poverty rate of the poorest state in the United States. Forty-five percent of the population is in extreme economic risk. And these are folks who live paycheck to paycheck. I mean, there’s — people like to talk about the huge amount of folks on government assistance. But in addition to that, you also have a huge class of working poor, who live a gig economy, who live paycheck to paycheck, and they have not — a lot of them have not worked since Irma. They’ve not received a paycheck. So, our people are really frustrated, because you can’t get money out of ATMs right now in Puerto Rico, and that’s certainly a concern for huge amounts of people. But there’s people who have no money to withdraw, because they have not received any income since Irma. And so, right now, when all that is available is a scarce amount of food and water that you can purchase only in cash, there’s a lot of people who are simply going hungry and going thirsty.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, Professor, what the Jones Act is?

YARIMAR BONILLA: The Jones Act limits the kind of trade that Puerto Rico can have, because it can only arrive on US ships. And so, not only does it limit the ships that arrive, which is critical right now, it also makes the cost of everything that arrives much higher. And so, it makes basic necessities in this time, like batteries and generators — it makes them prohibitive.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is interesting. I mean, in the case of the hurricanes that hit Texas, for example, the EPA was busy rolling back all environmental — many environmental protections, saying, “We don’t want these regulations right now.” But when it comes to Puerto Rico, have they rolled back the Jones Act?

YARIMAR BONILLA: No. They specifically have said they they will not, that they don’t think it’s necessary, that they think the US is doing all it can. And I really don’t understand that at all. When you had the instance of the earthquake in Haiti, there was a floating hospital that was brought to the shores of Haiti, where people were taken to to get medical attention. Nothing of that sort is happening in Puerto Rico. We need fresh water. There’s no water being brought to the island. There are not water reserves. You know, a lot of — there’s been a lot of talk about the electricity, but 80 percent of the population also don’t have running water or available drinking water.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from New York City right now, where an estimated 10 percent of residents are Puerto Rican — some 700,000 people. Many are still trying to reach loved ones since Hurricane Maria, which officials say wrought more than $10 billion in damage to the island, far worse than we’ve seen in any US state. Some have organized a call center at the Puerto Rican Family Institute, where volunteers tried to contact their family members and family members of others worried for their safety, as they assisted others.

YANLEY TORRES: Yanley Torres. I’m working here at the Puerto Rican Family Institute for seven years. And basically, what we are doing right here is we are taking donations to send to Puerto Rico. As well, we also are answering phone calls for the people who needs to know information about their family members. We have a person calling, telling us that she — the last word she heard from her mother was “I’m going to die, but I wanted just to tell you that I really love you.” That was really hard. And, you know, when you hear stuff like that, you said, you need to do something — “We need to do something. We need to really help.”

TOMASITA MALAVEBOLET: My name is Tomasita Malave-Bolet. OK, I live here in New York, but I have — my whole family is in this little town here called Florida. It’s municipal 78. Florida is a tiny dot in the whole map. Things are — supplies are coming through here, but the problem is that they’re not reaching the little town called Florida. I have two brothers and my mother, that was admitted in the hospital two days before this happened, because of the nerves. And I haven’t got in contact with her, and I’m very worried, because I can’t sleep, I can’t eat. I don’t know what else to do.

My daughter is in the military. My daughter is in Hawaii right now. I have a grandson. I don’t see him. She’s serving in the United States Army. My daughter is in Hawaii serving. My son-in-law is in Hawaii serving. I have two nephews serving the Army, the United States Army. They’re Puerto Rican. Where is — where is help for my people?

LUIS ALFREDO DEL VALLE: My name is Luis Alfredo Del Valle Collazo. I’m here at the Puerto Rican Family Institute. I’ve been volunteering all day today and a little bit Saturday. I haven’t been able to reach my mom. She’s in Ponce. She’s in a part of Puerto Rico that — basically, everywhere besides the metropolitan area is completely shut out. Beyond having no running water or no electricity, they also have absolutely no communications, except for some landlines that are starting to work now. Things are going really haywire. People are stealing people’s, you know, gas and food. And it’s urgent that people know that this is getting ready to be a health crisis. There’s a lot of people drinking contaminated water with cadavers and dead animals in it.

And, I mean, look, it seems like whenever the US gets in a conflict halfway around the world, they’re quick to shoot the resources over there. They’re quick to build communications towers, to build — to protect oil rigs. You know, they’re quick to send their troops over to protect resources. We’re American citizens. We have been for over a hundred years. We can’t be left alone to die.

AMY GOODMAN: Voices of Puerto Ricans here in New York. Special thanks to Democracy Now!’s John Hamilton and Ariel Boone, as we talk to Yarimar Bonilla, herself Puerto Rican, a professor at Rutgers, wrote a piece in The Washington Post, “Why would anyone in Puerto Rico want a hurricane? Because someone will get rich.” She’s author of Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment and one of the founders of the Puerto Rico Syllabus. So you heard that last voice of Luis talking about when the US invades, they bring in resources — where is the military on our island? Interestingly, the disproportionate number of Puerto Ricans who serve in the US military, one of the highest percentages anywhere in the country.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Mm-hmm. No, that’s been one of the big questions, too: Where is the military? We’ve seen — we’ve seen the deployment of troops. Supposedly the National Guard has been activated, but people are saying on social media and on the local radio that they don’t see the presence of it. And, you know, there are military bases in Puerto Rico. As you know, Vieques was almost entirely a huge military base. The military has profited greatly from Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Vieques — we just had Luis Gutiérrez on, the congressman, who was arrested twice in Vieques protesting the US Navy bombing the island, napalming the island. And now?

YARIMAR BONILLA: Where are they? Where are they? That’s what people are asking. I mean, and it’s a complicated question because, on the other hand, nobody really wants to call for a military occupation, and we know what sometimes the deployment of these forces bring with them. But at the same time, I know — the woman that you showed on the tape, her daughter serves in the military. Puerto Ricans feel like they’ve contributed so greatly. They’ve lost lives fighting in the military. And so they do want to feel some kind of protection at this point. I think it’s to the point where people are ready for that kind of assistance, when you have old people who can’t get out to get drinking water for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, Professor Bonilla, in your piece, “One peculiarity of this year’s hurricane season is that many of the societies that have been hit are not sovereign nations but rather places with diverse and shifting arrangements with their colonial centers.” And, of course, you talk about Saint Martin. You talk about Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico that doesn’t — isn’t able to choose the president of the United States but is a part of the United States.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yeah. You know, there used to be a saying that Puerto Rico had the best of both worlds in this relationship. But I think, increasingly, people have come to realize that it has the worst of both worlds, because, on the one hand, it shares the same kind of environmental vulnerability to these kind of storms that the Caribbean nations face, but, at the same time, it is not able to rally with its neighbors. And in addition to the environmental vulnerability, it has economic vulnerability, as we discussed, with these high rates of unemployment. It has infrastructural vulnerability, because in its current economic crisis it has not been able to attend to its power grid, to its water supply, for over a decade.

And it also has great political vulnerability, because it has no representation in Congress. Puerto Ricans on the island are nobody’s constituents. Nobody is watching out for them. You have people like Luis Guitérrez and Nydia Velázquez who respond, in part, and partly because they have a great number of Puerto Rican constituents in their home states.

AMY GOODMAN: And they are Puerto Rican.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yeah, but Puerto Ricans have no one in Congress being able to leverage votes, to partner, to rally, to strategize with the other, you know, members that are there.

AMY GOODMAN: As Puerto Rico faces six months before its power grid is restored, Ricardo Ramos, the director of the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority told CNN people would need to change the way they cool off. He said, quote, “It’s a good time for dads to buy a ball and a glove and change the way you entertain your children.” Professor Bonilla?

YARIMAR BONILLA: It’s offensive. It’s completely offensive, because this is not a matter of watching iPads and playing Nintendo. This is a matter of people needing to have their insulin chilled, people needing to have their asthma respirator therapy attended to. It’s a dire medical, critical human rights crisis. And so, to say that — to pretend that this is about people wanting to just entertain themselves and entertain their kids, I can’t imagine anything more offensive than that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, there is Donald Trump’s quote. And if you could respond to what he said about Puerto Rico having to deal with their crumbling infrastructure and their debt, what they owe to banks?

YARIMAR BONILLA: To me, this was clearly a message to Wall Street. This was saying, “Don’t worry. We’re not going to forgive the debt. We’re not going to — you know, we’re going to take care of you.” That’s who Donald Trump is assuring. The debt will continue to be serviced. And I don’t know at what expense.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does the PROMESA act fit into this, the PROMESA bill?

YARIMAR BONILLA: Well, and this is part of what I wrote about in The Washington Post. The PROMESA act already paved the way for privatization of all of Puerto Rico’s public services. And Donald Trump has tweeted, and also the oversight board in Puerto Rico had already tweeted also, or communicated, that they were going to expedite any kind of projects that would help raise Puerto Rico at this time. But those will probably be the privatization of public services at incredibly low rates or possibly even giving away these private services for other — for these public services, for private companies to manage. They’ll probably promise that they’ll make some repairs and make some improvements, and then Puerto Rico will completely lose all of its services. Not to talk about the huge displacement of population and the kind of gentrification that we can expect to happen, just as it happened in New Orleans.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump hasn’t been to Puerto Rico.

YARIMAR BONILLA: No, no. People are saying this is Trump’s Katrina, but it’s Katrina times a hundred, because it’s Katrina in every town in Puerto Rico that is completely abandoned right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Yarimar Bonilla is a Puerto Rican scholar. We will link to her piece in The Washington Post headlined “Why would anyone in Puerto Rico want a hurricane? Because someone will get rich.” She is one of the founders of the Puerto Rico Syllabus, associate professor of anthropology and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University, visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we move from Puerto Rico to Port Arthur, just outside Houston, Texas, to talk about the devastation and what recovery looks like. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Andra Day singing “Strange Fruit” at the Global Citizen concert in Central Park, “Strange Fruit” written by Lewis Allan for Billie Holiday. “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” a protest song against lynching. Billie Holiday said every time she sang that song, she would go in the bathroom and throw up.

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