New York State and New York City, home to the largest Puerto Rican and Dominican populations outside of the Caribbean, are all hands on deck in the wake of Hurricane Fiona that hit last week. Every level of government is advocating that more federal and local aid be sent for people currently without electricity, food, water, gas, and medical assistance.
Mayor Eric Adams took a trip to Puerto Rico (PR) and the Dominican Republic (DR) to support relief efforts this weekend. In a media debriefing upon his return, elected officials, faith leaders, and city agency officials committed to serving and assisting both islands in recovery.
“New York City is a cross section of the world and that comes with a lot of responsibility, and that means when things happen in other places it affects us deeply,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams at the briefing. “People forget that these are Americans. These are Americans. What other state would this happen in that the entire country wouldn’t galvanize everything that they can to make sure it’s okay?”
Hurricane Fiona (Category 1) has left at least 21 Puerto Rican people dead and thousands without power or running water since Monday. There was mainly flooding in PR with over 30 inches of rain in some parts and heavy winds in DR.
As of this Tuesday, Sept. 27, the territory has had about 69% of its power restored, 88% have access to wifi/communications, and 87% have access to potable water again, according to PR’s emergency department data. Some 1,250 school social workers have been activated, together with 502 professional counselors, 775 school psychologists and 888 nurses to reach out to local shelters, students, and their families while work is being done to clean debris and provide drinking water, said the data.
Similar in destruction, Hurricane Maria (Category 5) in 2017 devastated the island and surrounding islands. It was reported that 64 people had died directly from the storm and about 3,000 died in the aftermath.
At a rally in Manhattan’s Foley Square, New Yorkers who have lost family members during both storms as well as immigrant rights advocates grieved for their extended communities and are livid about the historic “colonialism” that plagues the relations between the island and the U.S.
Lerner Rodriguez said she lost her uncle, 61-year-old Ovidio Sanchez. “I just got off the phone with one of my cousins and I asked what we could possibly do, and in typical Sanchez family form they made a joke,” said Rodriguez, who was somewhat emotional while speaking. “They said we’re alive, we’re breathing, yeah it hurts, but think of the time it takes to make pasteles. Everyone takes their turn.”
Activist Mili Bonilla said she lost her 83-year-old father Jose “Pepe” Bonilla in one of the impacted hospitals in Bayamón running on a generator during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. She said prior to the hurricane he was in great health, but he ended up needing a ventilator and passed shortly after. She said the “inept” U.S. and PR government were responsible.
Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana Coordinator Jonathan Soto spoke about the brazen “imprint of injustice” on the initial FEMA maps, which indicate flood zones in need of aid, that left out some 22 central and west coast towns in PR significantly damaged by the hurricane.
“The individual assistance is critical for anti-displacement,” said Soto about an inevitable land grab in PR’s tax-free real estate after the storm. “Anybody knows that Rincón is the epicenter of gentrification manufacturing that is displacing our people and it’s going to spread—that’s why you saw the west coast excluded.”
President Joe Biden has since quickly granted the Major Disaster Declaration requested by PR for 78 municipalities on the island so they qualify for access to public assistance and the Individual Assistance program. Meanwhile, city and state lawmakers are busy with legislation centered around recovery and relief efforts.
On the city council level, said Councilmember Alexa Avilés, a letter was sent to congress and Biden urging a waiver of the Jones Act or the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 that regulates shipping between U.S. ports. The act is impeding a fuel ship carrying much needed diesel from Texas.
“I was a signatory on that letter,” said Avilés. “We need a waiver so that humanitarian aid can come in, but the truth of the matter is that the Jones Act is an unjust policy that needs to end. It’s a colonial relic from the shipping sector in the U.S.”
Assemblymember Eddie Gibbs, who represents a primarily Latino community in Manhattan, said on Friday that he is focused on getting his bill that creates a federal PR relief and recovery account passed. Bill A9420 is currently in committee in the assembly. He initially introduced the bill months prior to the storm because PR’s infrastructure had never fully recovered from Hurricane Maria, he said. He is joined in this endeavor to get the PR Relief bill passed expeditiously by Assemblymember Brian Cunningham, who said he is a huge proponent of climate change and believes in doing everything he can to assist Caribbean communities.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as U.S. Reps Nydia Velázquez and Gregory Meeks, equally called for billions in federal relief for the island this week. They urged congress to provide emergency funding as well as $1 billion in nutritional aid for PR, DR, Turks and Caicos, Guadeloupe, and other Caribbean nations impacted by Hurricane Fiona. Gillibrand’s bill is the Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Fairness Act of 2022.
“Over the past few years, Puerto Rico has faced crisis after crisis,” said Gillibrand. “In 2017, Hurricane Maria killed thousands of people and flattened entire neighborhoods. Supply chain disruptions from COVID and rising prices have left too many Puerto Ricans without enough to eat.”
Frankie Miranda, president and CEO of Hispanic Federation, said that PR is “excluded” from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other essential federal programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This freezing out affects the economic stability and progress of children, families, and individuals residing on the island, he said.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w