Long before Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall, Puerto Rico was bracing for a financial tsunami. Facing an unprecedented financial crisis caused by U.S. fiscal policy, members of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican leadership worked through the organization PA4PR to lobby for a supportive policy for Puerto Rico and to minimize the impact of the financial control board. Local elected officials State Rep. Angel Cruz and Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez joined other Puerto Rican elected officials in several public actions to organize our stakeholders and lobby Congress.
The historic storm and its aftermath have amplified the need for strong leadership and decisive action from Congress to help Puerto Rico navigate its financial challenges and take care of the U.S. citizens living on the island of Puerto Rico – a population of 3.4 million in 2017, now dwindling as over 500,000 have left the island seeking refuge and emergency medical care in mainland cities including Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, the president and Congress have failed Puerto Rico and our fellow U.S. citizens in the U.S. Virgin Islands, who also have suffered drastic losses and still lack access to necessities of stable electricity or water. The new normal is unacceptable.
We established Unidos PA’PR as our united grassroots relief effort after Hurricane Irma, and our work ramped up dramatically following Hurricane Maria’s unprecedented destruction. We are very proud of our accomplishments in the last eight months: raising almost $400,000, adopting 2,000 families in Puerto Rico, and allocating tens of thousands in recovery support for businesses and organizations.
While proud of the resources we have marshaled, we remain frustrated by the president’s response to the crisis in the largest U.S. territory. When he visited the island, he happily tossed paper towels to the crowd, but further resources have not been forthcoming. We had hoped for the kind of disaster response and rebuilding assistance that FEMA provided in Texas and Florida, but that kind of help is apparently not available to American citizens in Puerto Rico.
As unstable conditions continue, so does the exodus to the mainland. The need for housing support and wrap-around services is great, and instability in the decision-making process has proven disastrous. Unlike Florida, Pennsylvania is not a designated host site and lacks access to many federal resources, but we have joined with leaders in New York, Florida, and Boston to lobby aggressively for supports.
Our efforts have yielded fruit. We had a productive meeting with the regional leaders of HUD and they issued a directive to HUD Multifamily Housing owners and agents outlining the agency’s Emergency Disaster Guidance granting priority for temporary and permanent housing to people displaced by a Presidentially Declared Disaster. They also reallocated some HUD funding for Pennsylvania to provide rental assistance to evacuees.
We met with Mayor Kenney and continue to seek his support for using the Special Preference Housing option to increase access to affordable housing units that are at his disposal, So far, the mayor has issued five housing vouchers for qualified families from Puerto Rico with a promise to issue more.
We have also met with the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) to push for access to housing units through its Super Preference Policy.
The crisis in Puerto Rico began long before the storms, and the recovery will continue long after. The efforts begun with Unidos PA’PR continue through the newly established Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee (GPLTRC), which will be the first time such a committee has been established solely to provide disaster relief outside the area of impact. “These Philadelphia organizations are forging new ground,” says Laura Olson (Georgetown University Program for Emergency and Disaster Management). By adapting the LTRC model to local needs, Dr. Olson notes, the GPLTRC’s efforts “have great significance as a model.”
Another storm is always around the corner, and the GPLTRC establishes a mechanism to address the needs of the 2,000-plus evacuees in the greater Philadelphia area and lay the foundation of an instrument ready to address the challenges ahead. Through this work, we remain committed to supporting those who have lost so much and to fighting for equity for Puerto Rico.
The Rev. Bonnie Camarda and Will Gonzalez are executive committee members of Unidos PA’PR. Other executive committee members include Rep. Angel Cruz, Rep. Emilio Vazquez, Adonis Banegas, and Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.