On the tallest peak off the town of Humacao, the neighborhood of Mariana has gathered on a recent Saturday afternoon. They are here, as they have been every day for the last two-and-a-half months, to trade labor — cook in the communal kitchen or pump clean water from a donated Planet Water filtration tower — for basic needs.
They call their piece of heaven “Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo” (Mutual Support Project), and it has helped them build a town within the town, ease their pain and survive the devastation Hurricane Maria inflicted on Puerto Rico and the 3.5 million American citizens who lived there on the eve of the storm.
The eastern coast town of Humacao was hit first when Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, and residents still wake up to their new normal: no electricity or water. The town may look like a battlefield but residents are amplifying outside relief efforts and donations to rebuild through community organizing. No one in Mariana is waiting to be saved and they are not alone. All around Puerto Rico, there are similar scenes of families, neighborhoods and businesses refusing to give up by rolling up their sleeves together.
As a Puerto Rican living in South Florida, what I saw in Mariana gives me hope and makes me believe that Puerto Rico can emerge stronger. But having spent more than a decade in public policy, I also know the deck is stacked against Puerto Rico and we are running out of time.
Since the hurricane, Congress approved $4.9 billion in loans to a government already more than $70 billion in debt just to avoid an operations shutdown. Last week, the House released a bill that proposes $81 billion in emergency relief aid that would cover the disasters in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Damages in Puerto Rico alone are estimated at $95 billion. At this point, no one knows how much Puerto Rico will be allocated or when the fund will come up for a vote. Adding insult to injury, Congress just passed a tax reform bill that imposes a 12.5 percent surtax on income that American mainland companies in Puerto Rico receive from intellectual property. This could force pharmaceutical companies operating there, which account for 30 percent of gross domestic product, to move to countries with more favorable conditions. Thousands of jobs would be lost, adding to the thousands lost since the hurricane, on an island where unemployment hovered between 10 and 11 percent for the past year. The tax reform bill is the final lump of coal in Puerto Rico’s stocking this Christmas.
Since the hurricane, the invigorated spirit that is driving Mariana has gripped Puerto Rican communities and their friends and allies across the United States. Massive collections of water and food filled shipping containers coming from South Florida and New York. Organizations like Hispanic Federation raised more than $20 million from people who stood up for fellow Americans in need.
To friends and allies of Puerto Rico: We are thankful, and hope you stay engaged. To our diaspora: If Puerto Rico stands a chance at true recovery, we have to do more. We must organize our community — five million strong — into an educated voting and advocacy machine. We must invest in talent and time as well as in institutions that can lead this effort from New York, Florida, Texas and beyond. The moment of truth has arrived. Will we exercise our rights and meet our responsibility as Americans to help Puerto Rico? I know what Mariana would do.
Frances Colon is the founder of Cenadores Puerto Rico, an engagement platform for Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, and the former deputy science and technology adviser to the U.S. Department of State from 2012-2017.