Why is Puerto Rico so vulnerable to disasters?

The devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Fiona has received significant media attention in the weeks following, as it should. However, many of these stories focus on the logistical elements of the crisis without engaging with the deeper question: Why is Puerto Rico so vulnerable to disasters? The answer to this question is not simply geography, not even simply that climate change makes storms like Fiona and its predecessor Maria more likely. The astute reader may notice that I have not labeled these events “natural” disasters. This reflects a growing trend among academics to shift the language surrounding storms, wildfires, and similar events. These are now commonly referred to simply as “disasters” or given more event-specific names in recognition of the complex mix of forces that determines these events’ severity and frequency, as well as the scale of their impact on human life. Of course, this includes the understanding that climate change is caused by human activity and exacerbates both the severity and frequency of disasters. However, this characterization extends beyond climate change to encompass disaster preparedness.

 

Humans do not have the capability to stop a hurricane in its tracks, and despite the heroic efforts of firefighters, we can only do so much to contain wildfires. However, the way we prioritize our funding and attention can shape the extent of their damage to property and, more importantly, to human life. Investing effort and money into evacuation plans, early warning systems, resilient infrastructure, and community outreach can save lives during times of crisis and jumpstart the rebuilding process. This sort of preparedness is exactly what Puerto Rico lacks, and its residents are not to blame. In order to understand why, it is critical to comprehend the island’s history.

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Status

Puerto Rico is officially a United States territory, acquired mere months after Spain had granted it self-government. Hopes of an independent Puerto Rico were dashed in 1898, when the US gained control of the island following the Spanish-American War. Its status as a territory means that Puerto Rico is subject to US laws and policies, but its only federal representation is a nonvoting observer. Puerto Ricans are American citizens who can be conscripted, but who do not have the right to vote in federal elections. As Juan R. Torruella (2013) observes, “[p]ut simply, what exists is government without consent of the governed”. We already have a word in the English language for a region that is controlled from overseas and lacks democratic representation: colony. US possession of Puerto Rico is colonization, plain and simple. In fact, Puerto Rico’s status is so much lower than a state that, according to Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution, Congress has the power to sell off (“dispose of”, in the exact wording) the territory at any time. Thus lacking in any substantive status in the eyes of the federal government, Puerto Ricans hold little power to advocate for better disaster preparedness and relief efforts. As we will see, this has had devastating consequences for the island.

 

Because of their lack of democratic representation, Puerto Ricans have voted in several referenda to become a US state (most recently in 2020). However, these referenda are nonbinding and Congress has never moved to adjust Puerto Rico’s status as a result. Other island residents have instead advocated that Puerto Rico become an independent, self-governing state. Some members of this contingent identify Puerto Rico as a member of an American empire which is not an equal member of the democracy. They believe Puerto Rico’s future is best served by removing itself entirely from the grip of its colonizers.

The Impact of Colonial Status on Disaster Preparedness

Independence movement supporters have good reason to be wary of maintaining closeness with the US. Colonies, basically by definition, exist to benefit their colonizers, and this can be seen clearly in the fraught history between the US and Puerto Rico. The island uses the US dollar, and its economy is subject to American regulations and trade policies. A vivid example of the economic suffering imposed on Puerto Ricans by its colonial status was Operation Bootstrap, a plan to industrialize the island via tax incentives to US companies. From the 1960s through the 1990s, companies used Puerto Rico as a tax haven by exploiting loopholes in the law that implemented the plan, in addition to benefiting from low wage costs. Once this loophole was recognized, Operation Bootstrap was repealed. However, by this point the Puerto Rican economy was highly dependent on that of the US, and the repeal caused even more economic damage.

 

Economic suffering continues to this day and exacerbates Puerto Rico’s struggles to prepare for and recover from disasters. The federal government has a history of prioritizing disaster relief and recovery efforts in states over those in territories such as Puerto Rico. Unfortunately we have recent examples of this trend. The island of Puerto Rico was still recovering from 2017’s hurricane Maria when the most recent hurricane, Fiona, made landfall. Most of the funding allocated to Puerto Rico in Maria’s wake still has yet to be spent, hampered by a relatively new system that FEMA had never tested at that scale. Of the funds that have been spent in the last five years, most went toward emergency repairs, leaving little for building resilient infrastructure and preparing for future storms like Fiona. Lack of capacity in Puerto Rico has also stalled the recovery process, and some argue that the federal government should have taken the lead on rebuilding because it has this capacity. 

 

Some of this could be explained by general incompetence or inefficiency, rather than Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the US. However, the level of ineptitude and indifference characterizing the response to hurricanes in Puerto Rico is unmatched in states. One study, for example, compared the Maria recovery efforts to those of Harvey (in Texas) and Irma (in Florida) and found that Puerto Rico consistently received less money and fewer resources, all at a slower pace than US states. The effects of this mismatch are clear; FEMA data show that in 2019, two years after the hurricanes that rocked Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico in 2017, the recovery process in the latter still dragged behind. President Biden has recently pledged to do better and removed blocks on the island’s access to federal funds that had been put in place by Donald Trump, but it took him until mid-2021 to do so. As long as it exists in a colonial state, Puerto Rico clearly is not a priority for the US government.

 

Allison Bostrom
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I finished my MSc in International Development (With Distinction, from the University of Edinburgh) in November 2022, five years after completing my MS in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Since then, I have written about topics ranging from the digital divide to the relationship between imperialism and migration. My writings are connected by their focus on making the world a more equitable place. To keep my focus sharp, I enjoy writing about migration, human rights, and other related topics for The Commoner as well as volunteering as a Content Specialist for RYSE (Refugee Youth Success and Empowerment Initiative).

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