Many Puerto Ricans Believe 'Second-Class Citizen' Status Contributed to Failed Federal Hurricane Response

Posted Oct. 11, 2017

MP3 Interview with Ana Portnoy, Puerto Rico-based writer, poet and performer, conducted by Scott Harris


Puerto Rico suffered the most damage from hurricanes this season than the island has witnessed in almost 100 years. Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the island is still struggling to recover. As of Oct. 10, 85 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without electricity, more than 40 percent don’t have running water, and some 80 percent of cell phone service is out of commission. By some estimates, it may take six months or more to restore power and other basic services. The death toll in Puerto Rico attributed to Hurricane Maria has risen to 43, but officials say that number is likely to rise. Islanders continue to fall victim to storm-related hazards including infections, dangerous road conditions and lack of emergency medical care.

The Trump administration has been condemned for its slow and disorganized response to hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Now, Trump faces more criticism for allowing a temporary waiver of the Jones Act to expire. Without a waiver of the Jones Act, that permits only U.S. flagged ships to carry goods to American ports; Puerto Ricans will continue to face shortages of critical goods urgently needed for storm relief and recovery.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Ana Portnoy, a Puerto Rico-based writer, poet and performer reached on the island by a spotty phone connection. Here, she discusses the post-Hurricane Maria reality, the status of relief efforts and the political impact of the disaster on the Puerto Rican people. [Rush transcript]

ANA PORTNOY: The metropolitan area of San Juan, which the U.S. and international media has been focused on, is on a completely different plane than the rest of the island. Communications are a lot more functional there. Provisions and aid have either reached communities or aren't as urgent as in towns outside of the metropolitan area. Fuel and supplies routines have reached levels closer to normalization. And overall, aid and relief have been made more available there, which speaks volumes about the metropolitan area and colonial inter-island dynamics.

But, for example, the central part of the island and the west side of the island, which is where I am currently, have been abandoned by both the central and federal government. It wasn't until recently that this side was declared a disaster zone and therefore qualified for individual disaster assistance. The communities have been reaching a point of utter despair because no aid or relief has reached them yet. They haven't seen any FEMA representatives, because they have no roof over their heads; FEMA hasn't delivered the tarps. People are rummaging through trash cans, walking miles to springs, creeks and rivers to bathe, to get water to drink to take care of basic necessities. The situation is dire here.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There's been quite a bit of discussion since the mayor of San Juan had been very publicly critical of FEMA and the federal government's response to the hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico. From your understanding, what has been the weaknesses in FEMA's response and the other agencies of government, as well as the military, which has participated in relief efforts as well.

ANA PORTNOY: FEMA has been complaining a lot that roads haven't been cleared yet, while news reporters have been saying that roads have been cleared. I'm not sure what difference that should make to FEMA because double helix helicopters are specifically engineered to carry exorbitant amounts (of supplies). Why are are they resorting to blocked roads as an excuse? I mean the federal government can send helicopters and planes halfway across the world or further to the remotest parts of the planet to make a drop-off and deliver supplies to their military-occupying nations that advance the U.S. hegemony, but they can't send to the humanitarian crisis on the island that Jet Blue flies to and from a hundred times a day because the roads are blocked? I mean, that just makes no sense to me. I'm not buying it and many of us aren't.

There have been a lot of problems with distribution efforts and I think that has a lot to do with the state of emergency that was declared here with bureaucratic holdups, with the Jones Act. The army here, the military of Puerto Rico, people from different communities and sectors haven't been receiving any aid from them. It's more of a military occupation in a colonial sense.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I'm wondering what your neighbors think about the federal response in regard to the feeling of some in Puerto Rico that they perceive themselves as second-class citizens in the eyes of Washington. Is that something you've encountered.

ANA PORTNOY: Absolutely. And not just here in Puerto Rico, but stateside as well. Our diaspora feels the same exact way. We felt abandoned and especially in non-metropolitan towns and municipalities in Puerto Rico, absolutely.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How will the destruction caused by these two hurricanes impact or affect people's views on politics in terms of the debate, the long-standing debate about commonwealth or statehood or independence?

ANA PORTNOY: I think first and foremost, it's going to have a significant effect regarding public opinion on the federal government itself, on its efficiency or lack thereof. And hopefully, this will eventually lead to discussions and conversations on Puerto Rico's political status, because for the past 18 days, we, the people of Puerto Rico have been taking whatever (amount) is possible into our own hands. Communities involving our diaspora have been at the heart of Puerto Rico's recovery, so disaster relief, aid, provisions and groundwork is taking place at a micro-community level, where local efforts such as neighborhood brigades and watches to keep the community informed by local AM radio stations. So, once we register and internalize this amazing feat we have taken on alone, which is our survival, I think the possibility of a discussion on autonomy and hopefully on sovereignty and independence will arrive and maybe become action.

So I think this is an opportunity to push that political status conversation regarding independence and sovereignty.

Read Ana Portnoy's article, "Irma and Maria: Shedding Light on Puerto Rico's Colonial Reality."

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