MATT NELSON FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
The damage to homes, lives and communities from Hurricane Maria continues to mount in Puerto Rico months later. About one-third of approximately 425,000 Puerto Rican homeowners are behind on mortgage payments, tens of thousands of whom haven't made payments in months. Some economists predict that if the current indicators hold, the entire island is destined for a fate similar to Detroit's.
Recently, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló ordered a review of every death that has occurred on the island since the hurricane, given mounting evidence that the actual death toll likely exceeds 1,000 rather than the 64 deaths that comprise the official count today. And the ill-health effects from Hurricane Maria are not relegated only to the island. Puerto Rico is home to more than 100 medical supply manufacturing plants. Hospitals on the mainland are feeling the impact and experiencing shortages of basic medical supplies like saline solution and IV bags.
At a November hearing on environmental effects after the storms, the chair of the environmental panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. John Shimkus, said, "Hurricanes Irma and Maria uncovered the intensified issues associated with aging and inefficient energy infrastructure, contaminated sites that are rapidly multiplying, landfills that are already overflowing and possibly the most contaminated drinking water supply in the United States."
When the situation is so dire it transcends partisanship, we have an opportunity to pass a relief package that not only addresses the immediate tragic state of Puerto Rico, but also sets its people up for success well into the future.
Puerto Rico doesn't just need its electricity and safe drinking water restored; it needs permanent policy that provides much-needed economic relief and allows it to reinvest in infrastructure that allows its residents to weather the next inevitable hurricane while avoiding more catastrophe.
Congress can start by instilling debt relief and forgive some of the crushing debt that hinders the territory's infrastructure at its most essential levels. Congress can also reform the Jones Act, which places cumbersome, unnecessary barriers to Puerto Rico's ability to use one of its best natural resource -- its ports -- to their fullest extent. Puerto Rico's aging and crumbling infrastructure is in dire need of a complete overhaul. Anything short of a full assessment of the island's needs -- and the funding to meet them -- would be terribly shortsighted and likely result in even more heartache and loss in the future.
In providing these changes, Congress must include provisions requiring full transparency when it comes to contracts. The exposed debacle with the Whitefish Power Company reveals a high risk that reconstruction funding will be primarily given to Trump's corporate cronies.
We need a rebuild plan that puts people first, aimed at providing immediate economic stability and increasing local community control over the rebuilding efforts. It shouldn't take cities and states being destroyed and hundreds killed to urge us to tackle this crisis. Let's honor all of Puerto Rico's residents by passing an aid package that ensures we do everything in our power to bring a just and full recovery.
Matt Nelson is executive director of Presente.org,the nation's largest online Latinx organizing group; advancing social justice with technology, media and culture.