A Month Later, U.S. Is Failing With Its Food and Water Crisis in Puerto Rico
Update, 10/20/17: Since this piece was posted, we became aware of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority's (PRASA) boil water notice for all people who have access to running water. So, while roughly 70 percent of the island has access to tap water, it appears it is not safe to drink untreated. However, FEMA appears to be reporting this figure as potable water. We've translated the boil water notice on PRASA's site as of Oct. 20 as the following: "After service is restored—To ensure that the water is drinkable: boil it for five minutes without covering [and] add chlorine bleach (without fragrance or other detergent), using the appropriate amount for the amount of water you will use. READ THE LABEL before using to guarantee that it contains only bleach. Read the percent of bleach and add the recommend amount to the water according to the table on the left. Mix well with water and leave for 20 minutes. You should be able to smell a faint odor of bleach. If that is not the case, add more bleach and leave for another 15 minutes. You can also use bleach in pill form sold in pharmacies. Follow the instructions on the label."
It's been a month since supercharged Hurricane Maria delivered a devastating blow to Puerto Rico, and people are still suffering without food, water and electricity. This is America in 2017, and there is only more climate chaos ahead thanks to the tight fist that fossil fuel interests have on climate policy. What will the response be to this new normal—deadly hurricanes, horrific and deadly wildfires, and their equally deadly aftermath? The past few weeks of climate disasters during this historically vicious season have shown that we need to move swiftly off of greenhouse gas-spewing fossil fuels. They have also shown that if we don't prioritize an equitable and just response to these unnatural disasters, more Americans will continue to face climate-fueled humanitarian crises.
And the Americans that will be most adversely affected are the vulnerable—children; elders; pregnant women; and low-income communities and communities of color. Puerto Rico is one of the starkest environmental justice stories of our time, and a reminder that our response to disasters must protect everyone going forward. This is our first test of humanitarian response within our borders to mass numbers of people lacking food and water, and in Puerto Rico, where 3.4 million Americans live, the Trump administration has failed miserably.
Water is life and Puerto Ricans are on the brink of disaster. Their water system relies on electricity to run the equipment to treat and distribute water, but only 22 percent of the island has power, which is hampering the effort to get the water and sewer systems back up and running. According to FEMA, only 56 percent of wastewater facilities are running (on generator power). Currently, 72 percent of homes have water coming out of the taps—after it inexplicably dropped from 72 to 65 percent earlier this week—but in the northern service area, less than half of homes have running water. The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority currently has a boil water notice in effect for those with service.
The situation is so dire that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to issue a warning for desperate people not to consume water from wells at contaminated toxic waste sites. Many are relying on stream water and at risk of contracting diseases like leptospirosis—and residents are already dying from drinking tainted water.
Desperate Puerto Ricans Are Drinking Water From Hazardous Waste Sites https://t.co/jDrdvJfzLb @greenpeaceusa @SierraClub @350 @billmckibben— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1508184391.0
Puerto Rico's food system was already too dependent on imports with big box stores selling fruits and vegetables that could easily have been grown on the island. But the hurricane has set the island back even more, obliterating about 80 percent of Puerto Rico's crop value. Now, many are wholly reliant upon processed food. But according to official figures, only 87 percent of grocery stores are open, and those that are open aren't fully stocked. According to an official with the Puerto Rican Chamber of Marketing, Industry and Distribution of Food, the food supply chain disruption will take time to address.
Where is the outrage? This is not the time to abandon Puerto Rico, as Donald Trump threatened to do last week. Congress must fully fund Puerto Rico's humanitarian aid and reconstruction, and consider debt forgiveness. We must finally begin to put people before profit in response to this crisis, and rebuild Puerto Rico's food, water and energy systems in a sustainable way to better withstand future disasters.
No time must be lost by the federal government in providing emergency sources of clean drinking water until 100 percent of the island has potable water from their taps. Rather than hiding behind secrecy, the U.S. government must report all deaths from tainted drinking water. Officials can't tackle what they don't count. It must also provide more information about unsafe drinking water. Maps of things like sewage spills and contaminated sites must be provided to communities. We must also ensure that the federal government provides direct funding for Puerto Rico's water system and not privatize it. Before the hurricane, the EPA had cut off Puerto Rico from vital federal loans to maintain its water system due to its debt to investors. A just reconstruction will further the human right to water, not Wall Street profits.
Puerto Rico must be given the tools and resources to build a local, sustainable agriculture system that offers the region a wide and varied diet. Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico imported some 80 percent of its food. But there is an opportunity to rebuild using agroecological practices to ensure food sovereignty on the island, which will also help it become more resilient in the face of future disasters.
We must also help Puerto Rico rebuild its electricity system so that it takes advantage of its abundant renewable resources, and no longer relies on imported oil. This is the future, and this is the only way we will build resilience into our energy system and avert the worst climate chaos ahead by moving off of fossil fuels. Legislation recently introduced by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, requires that 80 percent of our electricity be powered by renewable energy in the next 10 years, and 100 percent by 2035, which would help us accomplish this goal of a just and swift transition nationwide.
We have a moral obligation as a nation to protect all of our people in disasters, and in Puerto Rico, we're failing. But it's not too late to change course. We the people must stand up and demand an equitable and just humanitarian response, and the federal funding to help Puerto Rico rebuild sustainably.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.