Earlier this week, the protracted controversy over President Donald Trump's administration's response to Hurricane Maria burst back into the limelight with a new conflict over federal aid in Puerto Rico. Still reeling from the devastating damage of Hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico are in desperate need of federal disaster relief. As loyal American citizens, the people of Puerto Rico have every right to assistance from the federal government to get back on their feet.

Once again, however, an issue that should bridge the political divide has fallen victim to our toxic partisan politics. A GOP disaster relief measure that would have provided $14.2 billion in much needed emergency aid to Puerto Rico, including $703 million for Medicaid and nutrition assistance, failed to advance in the Senate this week. Senate Democrats opposed the measure, citing inadequate funding to deal with the crisis. Meanwhile, Trump has also resisted calls for further federal aid to Puerto Rico, accusing the island’s leaders of incompetence and corruption.

The ongoing back and forth in Washington over who is to blame for Puerto Rico’s woes is a distressing illustration of what’s wrong in America today. Our leaders, on both sides, are hurriedly attempting to seize the narrative on this crisis for political benefit. All the while, the people of Puerto Rico continue to suffer from a lack of action, discarded as props in the broader political battle engulfing America. We cannot continue to allow Washington to abdicate its responsibility to help the American citizens of Puerto Rico any longer. Instead, we must apply pressure on our representatives to provide robust aid.  

Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, is the deadliest storm to hit the United States since 1900. Most of the carnage inflicted by Maria occurred in the six months following the storm, not initial impact. After an initial reported death toll of 64, a study by researchers from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, commissioned by the Puerto Rican government, found 2,975 excess deaths in the six months after the storm. In those six months following Maria, the researchers found a mortality rate 22 percent higher than would be expected without the storm. The death toll in the months after Maria was particularly pronounced among the most vulnerable Puerto Rican populations. Those living in the island’s poorest municipalities had a startlingly- high 60-percent elevated risk of death while older, male Puerto Ricans had a 35-percent elevated risk of dying.

While more research is needed on this catastrophe, it’s evident the bungled government response, both federal and local, led to the preventable deaths of so many Puerto Ricans after the storm. While FEMA emergency workers did heroic work on the ground to save lives, not nearly enough resources were directed to Puerto Rico in the days after Maria. A study by the BMJ Journal found the federal government was far slower in its response to Maria than comparable Category 4 storms in the same time period. Within nine days of the disaster, victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida received $141.8 million and $92.8 million from FEMA to recover, respectively. Victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico received only $6.2 million from FEMA in the same time period.

The lackluster response from FEMA and the federal government had a direct impact on the well-being of the Puerto Rican people. A prime example is when over 20,000 pallets of water were brought in by FEMA and remained sitting on the tarmac of an airport in Puerto Rico for months on end while Puerto Ricans were forced to resort to drinking unfiltered spring water. It’s unacceptable Puerto Ricans were required to put their health at risk by drinking potentially unsafe water while 20,000 pallets of water were sitting on the island either tainted by heat or unused. Both FEMA and local authorities shoulder the blame for this egregious act of mismanagement and poor communication. The heroic emergency work of FEMA and local authorities on the ground to save lives immediately after the storm’s landfall doesn’t make these appalling mistakes excusable.

The inequality in federal response between catastrophic storms on the mainland and Puerto Rico is abhorrent. The people of Puerto Rico are equal citizens of the United States and ought to be treated as such. When our nation has asked the Puerto Rican people to fight for our freedoms, they have answered the call resoundingly. More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served bravely in the U.S. Armed Forces in every conflict since World War I. We in the continental United States cannot turn our backs on our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico in their time of need. One of the many reasons our country is so exceptional is because we rally around each other during times of adversity. Puerto Ricans are very much a part of that tradition. Our government’s response to Hurricane Maria must reflect that.

Going forward, it’s evident that an improved federal government presence can make all the difference for the health and well-being of the Puerto Rican people. With the failure of the disaster relief package for Puerto Rico in the Senate this week, the Puerto Rican people continue to wait for federal assistance on matters of life or death such as nutrition and health care. While nearly two years have passed since Hurricane Maria, our commitment to our fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico cannot wane. It’s past time for our leaders in Washington to put partisanship aside and demonstrate that commitment with continued disaster relief.

Dylan Berger can be reached at dylberge@umich.edu.

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