When the Government Failed Puerto Rico, Local Communities Stepped Up
By Coral Natalie Negrón Almodóvar
The Earth began to shake as Tamar Hernández drove to visit her mother in Yauco, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 28, 2019. She did not feel that first tremor — she felt only the ensuing aftershocks — but she worried because her mother had an ankle injury and could not walk. Then Hernández thought, "What if something worse is coming our way?"
Her hunch was right. In the twilight hours of Jan. 7, 2020, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck the U.S. territory, with its epicenter near the city of Ponce on the south coast, a few miles from Hernández's hometown. Buildings trembled throughout the territory, but the southwest took the brunt of the quake, with dozens of partially or completely collapsed dwellings, including a school and a church, according to a report from El Nuevo Día. The island's primary power generation plants in the southern area of Puerto Rico failed, immediately plunging the territory into darkness.
As a survivor of Hurricane Maria's devastation in 2017, Hernández was consumed with anxiety and desperation at the prospect of having to live through another natural disaster, and watching the government mismanage the recovery again. "My father's Alzheimer's progressed since the storm, and dealing with an equal emergency was unthinkable," she said, before bursting into tears. She doubted she could maintain her economic stability after the earthquake damaged her nail business in the urban center of Yauco.
A view of a washed out road near Utuado, Puerto Rico, after a Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew dropped relief supplies to residents Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. The locals were stranded after Hurricane Maria by washed out roads and mudslides. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Eric D. Woodall / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Help did arrive, although it didn't come from the government initially. Instead, a hyperlocal response made up of disparate nonprofits and volunteers arrived and provided much needed aid, even during continuing aftershocks. Hernández said she was especially thankful for the response from one community organization, Tabernacle Followers of Jesus Christ.
Those volunteer initiatives sparked a feeling of trust in refugee camps, said Víctor Amauri, a social worker and one of the help coordinators with Solidarity Brigade of the West, which is made up of people from many organizations who provided direct response to help communities after Hurricane Maria.
"Strategizing after the hurricane and developing short- and long-term plans was our strong suit," Amauri said. "Now, it isn't straightforward to plan something for tomorrow, because everything changed. Misinformation and lack of transparency from the federal and local governments are preventing us from helping our people as they deserve."
The group leaders of the Solidarity Brigade used to meet in Mayagüez to organize community building projects. They would teach about composting and orchard keeping, and promote grassroots efforts to enhance food security and local agriculture as tools of self-sustainability.
"But in this context, we cannot think ahead," Amauri said. "We are still handling dozens of cases of families that are sleeping on the floor because, even though we are a country prone to hurricanes and, thanks to our location in between fault lines, earthquakes, the authorities never developed an emergency plan response."
A report by the Center of Investigative Journalism of Puerto Rico, the Climate Change Series Project — the culmination of years of requesting public documents — found that despite Puerto Rico's vulnerability, the territorial government had taken limited measures to tackle natural disasters. Even though investigative work in 2017 uncovered evidence that the death toll of Hurricanes Maria and Irma was much higher than the 64 victims claimed by the former governor Ricardo Rosselló — nearly 3,000 people are estimated to have died, a little less than twice as many as in Hurricane Katrina — and the territory's ability to respond to emergencies has not improved much.
The government's inefficient response has led to the formation of several citizen coalitions that know the needs of their communities. The Single Voice Movement is a conglomerate of local nonprofit and community-based organizations that already developed a two-year response plan for earthquake-affected communities. The projects developed by these entities have a vision that looks inward toward active communities capable of supporting themselves and their neighbors, said Cora Arce Rivera, executive director of Aspira de Puerto Rico.
A group of students from Aspira's Inc. Alternative School in the municipality of Mayaguez ready to go to the town of Cabo Rojo and receive farming instruction. Francisco Acevedo.
Aspira's alternative school in the western town of Mayagüez allows teenagers, most of them school dropouts, to explore the significance of agriculture. The students are learning to cultivate tropical root and tuber crops that can germinate in unfavorable conditions. They are particularly resistant to damage by high wind hurricanes and typhoons, Aspira's agronomist Francisco Acevedo said.
José Esteban López Maldonado, a student at the elite Residential Center of Educational Opportunities in Mayagüez, runs a similar project in the small mountainside municipality of Adjuntas. In 2016, he managed to acquire one of the hundreds of schools closed by the local Department of Education and transformed it into a coworking space where people can learn about hydroponic cultivation, coffee planting, and greenhouses. USDA Rural Development, which offers loans and grants to economic development projects, has offered López help to improve the infrastructure of the school, but local authorities have not been able to provide him a proof of ownership so he can take advantage of the program, he said.
José Esteban in Ponce, Puerto Rico, presenting his new initiative to distribute coffee Caturra, produced in his farm Lírica. Coral Negrón
The island also faces a bankruptcy crisis and austerity measures imposed by the federal Financial Oversight and Management Board. José Caraballo-Cueto, an economist and assistant professor at the University of Puerto Rico, said the bureaucracy around government processes exemplifies how the island is the perfect prey for disaster capitalism. "Restoration doesn't have the impact it deserves on the local economy because the biggest beneficiaries are not locals," Caraballo said. "A private law firm is even handling the cases of lack of proof of ownership post-Hurricane María."
In Puerto Rico, almost 92 percent of houses were damaged by the hurricane, according to a report from the American Bar Association. More than 95 percent of those tenants, about 1.1 million people, applied for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Individuals and Households Program in 2018, but a FEMA spokesman told NBC News that 335,748 claims were denied because they couldn't provide a deed proving ownership of their homes.
Situations such as this one eroded Puerto Ricans' belief in local and federal institutions, which have promoted new governance models, said Arturo Massol Deyá, the executive director of 40-year-old environmental nonprofit Casa Pueblo.
In 150 locations across the island territory, Casa Pueblo ensured that, after Maria, those with the most urgent need for electricity received solar panels, including hospitals, small bodegas, and the homes of aging residents who required dialysis. In the recent earthquakes, the solar power systems proved to be more resilient than the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority's electricity grid, which failed again.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Massol Deyá acknowledges that people wanted to be helped by their fellow townspeople. "They discovered soon that the true meaning of 'just recovery' is that the resources end up providing services that change the reality of constant vulnerability," he said.
"Energy is the ability to do work," Massol Deyá said. "We are putting the opportunity in the hands of the people; we want them to acquire the power to govern themselves and enjoy their production. It is the maximum self-decolonization scenario because the top-down model has collapsed. … it is not effective."
An upcoming Casa Pueblo project, in collaboration with professors at the University of Michigan, will be to use biomass from coffee production to generate energy. The energy produced will be used to power the coffee plantation to improve the harvest. The technique, Massol said, helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, it will generate employment and provide a more sustainable life for the residents of Adjuntas.
Arturo Massol, executive director of Casa Pueblo de Adjuntas. Omar Alfonso
All these grassroots actions are becoming the backbone of survival in Puerto Rico. For the time being, however, the lives of those residing in earthquake zones are stagnant, said Edward Santiago-Pacheco, a U.S. Army veteran and father of a newborn girl.
He lost his newly purchased house in Yauco in the 6.4 magnitude earthquake and has not heard back from the insurance company, the bank, or any local government agency.
"It is hard to overcome this when you just brought a new life into this world," Santiago-Pacheco said. "FEMA only provided money for two months of rent for temporary housing, but I still must pay my house mortgage. The worst part is that the local government is using our pain in favor of their political propaganda."
On Feb. 10, the Solidarity Brigade learned about Hernández's and Santiago-Pacheco's cases and reached out to them, Amauri said. However, thousands need similar help.
"Two of our members are sociologists (Roberto Vélez and Jacqueline Villegas), and they developed a census to identify all necessities and help people the best possible way. But we need the government to publish relevant information that can help us organize our strategy," he added.
Casa Pueblo's installation of solar panels in a hardware store in Adjuntas. Arturo Massol
Coral Natalie Negrón Almodóvar is a Puerto Rican data journalist, a current grantee of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, and Patti Birch for Data Journalism Fellow at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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