The people of Puerto Rico can’t yet talk of rebuilding, or even recovery. They are focused on survival.
Three weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, the scope of the damage is still shocking. Just 10 percent of the island has power, although that number fluctuates, and only a third of cellphone towers are operating. Nearly 40 percent of the island is still without running water, and some residents are using water from contaminated wells, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The medical crisis is distressing: Only some hospitals are operating fully, and many lack medicine, doctors and generator fuel. Getting supplies to residents is a challenge, and on Wednesday the hurricane’s death toll rose to 45.
New York’s state and city officials, and others, are continuing to help, often filling gaps created by White House, Federal Emergency Management Agency and military officials, who have yet to display the necessary urgency and crisis management to alleviate the island’s suffering. It’s not just about sending supplies, it’s making sure they get to Puerto Ricans who need them. It’s not just about providing emergency medical facilities, it’s making sure the island’s sick residents get care. And it’s about not patting themselves on the back for a job well done when the job is far from over.
Don’t be fooled by federal officials’ attempts to downplay the devastation and sugarcoat their botched response. Their inability to handle this crisis, as well as the expectation that it will take months for power to be fully restored, for all schools to open and for jobs to return, is leading thousands of residents to leave. That will exacerbate a population drain Puerto Rico has been experiencing and will make the island’s recovery much harder.
The exodus creates an opportunity and a challenge for New York, home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans. Nassau County officials said they know of three families who have arrived from Puerto Rico since the hurricane seeking schooling, food stamps and, in one case, shelter. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he expects a “substantial number” of Puerto Ricans — likely in the thousands — to head there.
Our fellow citizens will need assistance. That means easing regulations and lifting paperwork rules, which state and city representatives said they’re starting to do. School districts should ready guidelines on how to handle new students. A clearinghouse of information would help. State officials and those in Suffolk County said they’re working to address that need, while Nassau officials said incoming families should contact the Department of Social Services. A state website with specific information by county, and phone numbers offering bilingual help, would be ideal.
Some Puerto Ricans will come here to wait out the crisis; others will stay on the island and rebuild. They’ll need help from the federal government, whose officials should stop congratulating one another and get serious about preparing for the long term. Congress, too, must do its part by approving an immediate disaster relief package and the $4.9 billion loan President Donald Trump has requested to address issues of liquidity.
But to our Puerto Rican friends heading this way, welcome.