Hurricane Fiona: 4 Ways the Federal Government Can Help Puerto Rico Rebuild Better
Almost five years to the day after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm—killing nearly 3,000 people and causing an estimated $90 billion in damage—Hurricane Fiona made landfall on the island, deluging it with destruction that is all too familiar to the more than 3 million American citizens who call Puerto Rico home. Rebuilding efforts since Hurricane Maria have been slow, inadequate, and incomplete, leaving the island ill-equipped to weather another major disaster. The crisis is more acute, however, as Puerto Rico has long struggled with economic challenges: Following years of recession, the island is in a debt crisis and has filed for bankruptcy relief. Indeed, more than 40 percent of the territory’s overall population lives in poverty, unemployment stands at 5.8 percent, and the median household income was $21,058 from 2016 to 2020.
Now, on the heels of Fiona, Hurricane Ian is devastating much of the Southern United States. Given past experience, Puerto Ricans are rightfully nervous that this will slow the flow of federal aid, diverting resources away from Puerto Rico when it remains vulnerable.
Hurricane Maria offered important lessons in disaster recovery and rebuilding. If we don't heed those lessons, recovery will only put a bandage on underlying challenges.
The Biden administration has taken swift action by issuing a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico to ensure that federal disaster assistance is available for recovery and rebuilding; by announcing $60 billion in additional rebuilding aid through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act; and by waiving the Jones Act to ensure that a shipment of diesel fuel is allowed on to the island to power generators and critical facilities. Such support is critical to helping Puerto Rico address its most immediate needs, but it will be some time before residents and experts can fully grasp the scale of Fiona’s damage.
Hurricane Maria offered important lessons in disaster recovery and rebuilding. If we don’t heed those lessons, recovery will only put a bandage on underlying challenges. The federal government must take the following steps to seize this moment and lay the groundwork for a long-term, equitable recovery that prioritizes building back stronger and better.
1. Meet the basic needs for all Puerto Ricans
Ensuring that all Puerto Ricans have access to basic needs such as food, water, and safe shelter is an immediate concern. Strong and responsive safety net programs can help achieve this end while Puerto Ricans rebuild their lives, putting them in a position to have more resources to weather the next disaster. Notably, Puerto Rico lacks the safety net programs on which the U.S. mainland relies. Food assistance is block-granted in Puerto Rico: The island gets a fixed amount of funding to provide limited aid. Yet this funding does not automatically increase during times of emergency, unlike food aid on the mainland.
Congress should pass an emergency supplemental appropriations bill, including at least $1 billion for food assistance, to support Puerto Rico’s response to Hurricane Fiona. Additionally, Congress should immediately increase access to federal assistance by permanently extending Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to Puerto Rico and the other territories, ensuring parity and access to a responsive safety net.
As the 2022 hurricane season continues, and as the extreme devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian indicates, more and more affected people will need to rely on emergency assistance. Ensuring that Puerto Ricans have access to a strong and resilient food safety net will help them recover from Hurricane Fiona and put in place systems to better meet need should another disaster strike.
2. Extend the Jones Act waiver
The Biden administration’s temporary waiver of the Jones Act—which requires all goods ferried between U.S. ports to be carried on ships built, owned, and operated by Americans—will bring relief to Puerto Rico, allowing in diesel fuel shipments that are critical to operating generators while the power grid is being repaired. Yet given the challenges posed by the Jones Act, there is a broader question about whether it should continue to apply to Puerto Rico. One option would be executive action to authorize an automatic suspension of the Jones Act for the duration of an emergency declaration in Puerto Rico.
3. Prioritize infrastructure revitalization
Hurricane Maria resulted in widespread destruction of major elements of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, including portions of the island’s electricity grid, highway, water, and telecom systems. Unfortunately, bureaucratic hurdles imposed by President Donald Trump, paired with a lack of technical expertise following Hurricane Maria, have slowed rebuilding efforts. As a result, heavy rains and flooding from Hurricane Fiona washed away many roads and bridges, plunging the island into darkness yet again and destroying some facilities that had recently been rebuilt.
Puerto Rican climate scientists, renewable energy experts, legal scholars, and community advocates recommend that the $9.4 billion awarded to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rebuild the electric grid following Maria be used to reconstruct a reliable grid built on renewable energy; ensure that construction projects comply with environmental protections and climate-informed flood standards; and protect coastal and interior lands from investors and developers looking only to make a profit. Congress can take this a step further by appropriating federal funds to conduct an island-wide infrastructure and climate risk assessment to prioritize resilient rebuilding that mitigates future climate risks.
However, only a small fraction of the federal funds allocated to rebuilding from Maria have been spent so far. Puerto Rico needs to rapidly rebuild its electrical grid to be resilient against future storms, while also providing adequate access to all residents. Island authorities, likewise, must prioritize rebuilding roads and bridges that provide essential connections for rural communities. Finally, an investigation should be instigated as to why so little of the Maria funds have been allocated when the need is so great and the consequences of lack of infrastructure are so grave. This should occur even as parallel and sufficient support is made available to rebuild from Fiona.
4. Pass emergency supplemental funding, incentivizing a whole-of-government approach to rebuilding
The Biden administration and Congress recognize the immediate need in Puerto Rico, but successful rebuilding will require sustained, long-term investments. President Biden recently announced that the federal government will pay 100 percent of the costs for debris removal, power, water restoration, shelter, and food for one month. While this support is necessary, it does not ensure the island’s long-term recovery. Democratic leaders have urged the federal government to go further and cover all recovery costs in Puerto Rico, especially in light of the island’s precarious economic condition and debt burden. Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi echoed the sentiment, asking President Biden to extend the disaster declaration for another 180 days to cover the cost of debris removal and recovery efforts.
The federal government has an important role to play in heeding lessons from rebuilding post-Maria. The Biden administration’s whole-of-government approach to environmental justice and racial equity should be amplified in the coordination of resources, expertise, and funding from all relevant agencies, including FEMA and the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture. In particular, funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, along with supplemental appropriations, should be directed through agencies in a coordinated way to maximize recovery efforts. Such coordination can better meet community needs across the spectrum of services, including access to food, water, shelter, roads, electricity, and communications.
An Urgent Rescue Plan for Puerto Rico
Lessons learned from Hurricane Maria should inform how the federal government addresses and overcomes challenges in recovering and rebuilding from current and future storms. In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona has been particularly damaging because of the island’s underlying economic conditions and the United States’ historical approach to disaster relief. The federal government has an important role to play in expeditiously allocating resources and expertise, incentivizing coordination among key agencies, and heeding the advice of local communities and experts on the most pressing needs. By taking the necessary steps, we can ensure that Puerto Rico is better prepared for the next inevitable natural disaster.
The author would like to thank Lily Roberts, Kevin DeGood, Karla Walter, and Kyle Ross for their expertise, input, and guidance, as well as CAP’s Editorial team for their support.
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