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Ignorance is Not Bliss; Take Care of Your Own

by Damaris Murillo

Critical Essay Honorable Mention, VSU Student Writing Contest 2019

Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States after the Spanish-American War when Spain surrendered Puerto Rico to the United States. In 1917 Congress granted everyone born in Puerto Rico to be an American citizen. Even though Puerto Rico belongs to the United States, it is treated like the red-headed stepchild; it is underprivileged. Puerto Ricans are citizens, but their votes don’t count, they get a little over half of what other American citizens on Medicaid receive and other mistreatments. Worst of all is that when it comes to reconstruction after a destructive hurricane, Puerto Rico gets neglected. The reason behind this discrimination is ignorance. Alan Gomez, an immigration reporter at USA Today, explains to us that “fewer than half of Americans (47%) believe that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth and another 21% just didn’t know where the people of Puerto Rico belong.” Gomez has covered Florida, Congress, and hurricanes.

The federal government of the United States should devote more resources to help Puerto Rico just like it has done for disaster areas in the states. It has been a little over six months since the devastating Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico; however, it continues to struggle with scarce resources, stretched medical service staff and unpredictable electrical power. I still have family members barely living in Puerto Rico. Daily they must travel to the nearest distribution point to get potable water and canned food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Electricity is not a luxury, it is a necessity. How are milk, eggs and meat going to keep fresh without electricity? Powdered milk, liquid eggs and luncheon meat have replaced the fresh provisions. Maybe food isn’t too bad to replace, but there are elderly people who rely on electricity or gas to run their health machines. Many schools continue to be closed because they have no power. Puerto Ricans are happy that the United States has sent so many provisions but what they need is electrical power, not money or canned food. Perhaps it would be helpful to send senior electricians to help with the electrical power.

There are different programs for emergencies that the federal government utilizes when disasters occur and Puerto Rico, being a part of the United States, should have equal rights. Williamson, (economist and researcher) and Pender, (branch chief) write in their article that “hurricanes—Katrina, Rita, and Wilma —together were responsible for over 2,000 deaths and more than $150 billion worth of damage, much of it uninsured, Congress quickly enacted two pieces of tax relief legislation: the Katrina Emergency Tax Relief Act of 2005 and the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act (GO Zone Act) of 2005.” These and many other benefits and provisions were provided to 90 counties in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, including 50 rural counties (Williamson and Pender). When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Hurricane Irma hit Florida and other hurricanes have hit the United States, we have seen how the nation comes together to rebuild our country, but the US has not responded in the same way with Puerto Rico in the case of Hurricane Maria. As Mufson, et al.reported, “an army of nearly 20,000 restoration workers, including the Florida Power and Light employees, from 30 states and Canada” were at work the first day after Hurricane Irma. Puerto Rico has not seen the same response. We need to rebuild Puerto Rico, starting with the electrical power.

Many people might argue that Puerto Rico is just a territory and not a state and so we should not have the same privileges, but it is not for a lack of trying. The government of Puerto Rico has held various referendums to decide if they wanted to become a state, an independent country or continue being a commonwealth. Graf writes in her article that “the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans who voted on a controversial referendum in June 2017 voted in favor of statehood. But that vote alone won’t change the island’s status, ultimately it is up to the U.S. Congress to pass a statute that would make Puerto Rico the 51st state.” More than half of Puerto Ricans do not wish to continue the present territorial status. We know the benefits statehood will bring to us in Puerto Rico. If we became a state, we would probably move to the top of FEMA’s list once they get the funds.

The United States has given a great amount of money to different states due to the hurricane disasters that have been happening. Now FEMA has no more money to help unless the funds are restored. In the official website of the Department of Homeland Security, Lindsay reports that “FEMA gets two pots of money from Congress for disaster relief. Together, base and major declaration funding totaled $7.3 billion in fiscal 2017. (FEMA can also carry over any unspent funds from the previous year.)” This is tons of money but if you consider all the disastrous hurricanes and subtract the amount of money needed to restore everything, $7.3 billion just isn’t enough. According to Kluger, “Texas Governor Greg Abbott speculates that his state might need up to $180 billion to recover fully from Harvey. Now, the federal government barely has cash available to make a small down payment on that amount. FEMA has just $3 billion on hand, and President Trump has asked Congress for only $7.9 billion in initial recovery money—something that ought to be an easy lift, except that nothing has been easy on Capitol Hill in recent years.” The latest disaster relief fund report from FEMA is that there is only 0.76M as of March 9, 2018. Nevertheless, the government spends money many times on things that are not a priority, like tourism. The President and Congress should consider that a human life is a priority, and in Puerto Rico there are millions.

Puerto Rico is still in dire need of stable electricity. According to Lindsay in the Congressional Research Service, “Once the president declares a major disaster, FEMA disburses funds to the state for eligible projects under the following categories, Public Assistance. This is FEMA’s largest funded program. It helps communities pay for things like debris removal and repairs to infrastructure, including public buildings, roads, bridges ‘and utilities.’” Electricity is the utility needed in Puerto Rico, and in the modern world, to function properly. The refrigerator to keep the food fresh runs with electricity. The machines in hospitals to care for patients run on electricity. Whitefish Energy is a small company based in Montana that was contracted to restore the electrical service in Puerto Rico. There was a huge controversy about the contract being canceled and the company pulling out of Puerto Rico due to allegations of overcharging and incompetence. Now we have the United States Army Corps of Engineers in charge of getting the power restored back on the island, still six months after the hurricane.

Puerto Rico is a United States territory and the Puerto Ricans are American citizens. The President’s and the United States’ responsibility is taking care of its citizens. There is a Bible passage that clearly depicts the responsibility that I mention in this article. Jesus says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” The Canaanite woman he was speaking to replied, “Yes it is, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (New International Version, Mat. 15:26-27) It doesn’t matter if most of the Puerto Rican population only speaks Spanish. It doesn’t matter if Puerto Rico is 1,150 miles away from Florida. What matters is that we, the people of Puerto Rico, are legal citizens of the United States and deserve the same civil rights as the citizens born in the states. Take care of us and our island.

Work Cited

“The Faith of the Canaanite Woman.” The Holy Bible, New International Version 2011. Accessed 30 March 2018.

FEMA. “Disaster Relief Fund: Monthly Report.” FEMA, 9 March 2018, Accessed 28 March 2018.

Gomez, Alan. “Yes, Puerto Rico is Part of the United States.” USA Today, 26 September 2017, Accessed 16 March 2018.

Graf, Christine. “STATEHOOD: Puerto Rico’s Uncertain Future.” Faces, vol. 34, no. 1, Sept. 2017, p. 12. EBSCOhost, Accessed 22 March 2018.

Kluger, Jeffrey, et al. “Houston After Harvey.” Time, vol. 190, no. 10/11, 18 Sept. 2017, p. 38. EBSCOhost, Accessed 21 March 2018.

Lindsay, Bruce R. “FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund: Overview and Selected Issues.” Congressional Research Service, May 7, 2014, Accessed 28 March 2018.

Mufson Steven, et al. “Small Montana Firm Lands Puerto Rico’s Biggest Contract to Get the Power Back on.” The Washington Post, October 23, 2017, Accessed 30 March 2018.

Williamson, James, and John Pender. “The Gulf Opportunity Zone Helped Affected Counties Recover Economically After Hurricane Katrina.” Amber Waves: The Economics of Food, Farming, Natural Resources, & Rural America, Oct. 2016, pp. 1-4. EBSCOhost, Accessed 14 March 2018.

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