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Issue #1839      September 12, 2018

Culture & Life

Puerto Rico

Fatal negligence

SAN JUAN: The new Puerto Rico death toll estimate from Hurricane Maria a year ago – 2,975, virtually equal to the number killed in the 9/11 attacks in 2001 – comes as support is rising on Capitol Hill for eventually making the 3-million-person commonwealth the nation’s 51st state.

Inadequate infrastructure and hit-and-miss repairs “currently leaves the island’s residents vulnerable to the same nightmare they experienced almost a year ago.”

But there are a lot of conditions attached to that effort.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s advocates, including Service Employees Local 32BJ, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and UnidosUS are using the numbers to demand the Trump administration really get off its ass and help the island recover from the killer storm and follow-up Hurricane Irma.

The new push for action came after an independent investigation disclosed the new numbers.

The 2,975 dead include not just people who died in the immediate days following the devastating hurricane, but those who died later from inadequate medical care, storm-related diseases, unsanitary conditions, lack of transportation for care due to smashed roads, or after-effects of accidents and depression. And Puerto Rico’s kids must still travel to “damaged schools” over “unpaved roads” a year after Maria, said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

“This third independent study confirms yet again what we have known all along, that the federal government’s attempt to downplay the severity of Hurricane Maria and lack of urgency in helping the people of Puerto Rico was lethal,” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, campaign director for Power 4 Puerto Rico, the coalition which includes the unions, LCLAA and union-backed Make The Road New York.

“If the (Trump) administration fails to learn from and act on these lessons, they will be guilty of fatal negligence,” Mark-Viverito told an August 30 press conference on the island.

“The people of Puerto Rico are nearly a year from when Hurricane Maria tore through their homes, families, and livelihoods, and we are only starting to get some of the answers as to why the federal and Puerto Rican governments’ responses were shamefully inadequate not only in preventing this tragedy but also in assessing its scale.”

The study by physicians and investigative staffers from George Washington University in DC “also confirms the need for a 9/11-style investigative commission to conduct a full accounting of why the federal and Puerto Rican governments were unable to save the lives of so many of our fellow citizens,” Mark-Viverito said.

One big reason for the high death toll is that Maria left the island’s already crumbling and creaky infrastructure – including its old and patched-up electrical grid – a wreck. Much of the island stayed without power for months after the storm, despite repair work from union volunteers. That killed people who depended on regular power to run their medical devices, such as a dialysis machine

And the roads were so blocked that patients needing to see doctors or get to clinics for care couldn’t do so. Inadequate infrastructure and hit-and-miss repairs “currently leaves the island’s residents vulnerable to the same nightmare they experienced almost a year ago,” the coalition added.

That gives a push to the statehood bill H.R.6246, which the island’s non-voting congressional delegate, Republican Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon, filed earlier this year. “Every day, we are closer to culminating the claim of the majority of Puerto Ricans who aspire to a worthy status on an equal treatment with their fellow citizens in the states,” she said in a press conference in late August.

H.R.6246 would establish a congressional working group on “Equality for American Citizens of Puerto Rico” that will have 13 months to recommending amendments or repeal of laws that differentiate Puerto Rico from the mainland, temporary economic measures to help the Puerto Rican transition and studying the impact on Congress and the electoral college of admitting Puerto Rico to statehood.

The statehood bill is also a response to the federal government’s inadequate response to the hurricane’s devastation, congressional supporters said. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which recently announced it would terminate housing aid to Puerto Ricans, admitted its response was inadequate, SEIU 32BJ President Hector Figueroa said last month.

“The agency said that it didn’t properly prepare for the storm and didn’t provide enough supplies to Puerto Ricans,” he told the Amsterdam News

AFT President Weingarten, a New York City (Brooklyn) middle school history and civics teacher, said the new death figures reinforce the federal government’s disastrous response to the hurricane.

“Given the findings from the tragic report released by George Washington University, it is difficult not to conclude that this administration’s response to Hurricane Maria was not just negligent, but malevolent. Hurricane Maria was a terrible natural disaster, but its death toll was worsened by the lack of a quick and adequate government response,” she said.

“We will honor the memory of those who died by demanding the federal government rebuild Puerto Rico to standards we expect as American citizens. And we will make sure the politicians who aided and abetted the administration’s negligence are held accountable in November,” she vowed.

People’s World

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