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Recovery efforts in Puerto Rico will take years, with or without help from Trump

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Three weeks into a devastating crisis, Puerto Rico has little hope on the horizon. President Trump took to Twitter Thursday morning to say that relief efforts on the island could not continue “forever”, seemingly threatening to end U.S. aid to the territory.

“We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” Trump tweeted.

The White House has been under fire for its handling of recovery and aid efforts following a devastating hurricane three weeks ago. Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, has left the island mostly without power, water, or basic access to medical care. But Trump has repeatedly downplayed Puerto Rico’s struggles, lamenting both the island’s pre-existing debt and the cost of recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) itself has been criticized for its slow response, as well as for reported food shortages and an overall lack of preparation.

Puerto Rico is home to 3.4 million U.S. citizens — more than the populations of 21 states. The island’s sheer size coupled with years of neglect from the mainland meant Puerto Rico was massively unprepared for a major storm. Those conditions also mean a lengthy recovery effort will be required; varying estimates of between $45 billion and $90 billion might be needed to restore the island to a functioning state.

Cost is far from the only factor at play for Puerto Rico. As of Friday, only 9 percent of the island had power, with a little over half of residents able to access cellular communication. Some 63 percent currently have water, but have still been warned to boil it prior to use, as a precaution.

In contrast, when Hurricane Irene — among the costliest storms in U.S. history — struck the northeastern United States as a reduced tropical storm in 2011, several states were left with a combined total of around $15.6 billion in property damage. That level of destruction required extensive relief — following the storm, FEMA spent more than two years in Vermont, a small state with a population of just over 624,000.

Hurricane Sandy, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history, caused a record $71.4 billion in damage and impacted 24 states, including New Jersey and New York, which are still recovering from the storm five years later.

In New Orleans, efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina are also ongoing more than a decade after the hurricane killed more than 1,000 people. The fallout from that storm also required billions of dollars in relief and rebuilding over the course of many years.

In total, FEMA is currently involved in ongoing recovery efforts related to at least 10 storms, some of which made landfall as far back as 2005.

Puerto Rico is hardly the only part of the United States in need of immediate hurricane relief. Another territory, the U.S. Virgin Islands, is also in need of assistance, as are the mainland states of Texas and Florida. But Trump has shown more interest in the latter two states than the island territories; after visiting the city of Houston — which is still struggling to recover after Hurricane Harvey — Trump tweeted a pledge to assist the city in its recovery efforts.

“TEXAS: We are with you today, we are with you tomorrow, and we will be with you EVERY SINGLE DAY AFTER, to restore, recover, and REBUILD,” the president wrote.

Florida got much the same treatment.

“FLORIDA- Just like TX, WE are w/you today, we are w/you tomorrow, & we will be w/you EVERY SINGLE DAY AFTER, to RESTORE, RECOVER, & REBUILD!” Trump emphasized.

That’s a far cry from the president’s comments to Puerto Rico on Thursday, when he threatened to cease aid to the island. FEMA itself appeared to contradict Trump’s threat a short time later, when spokesperson Eileen Lainez tweeted that the agency intended to stay until all efforts were completed in hurricane-affected areas.

“FEMA will be w/Puerto Rico, USVI, every state, territory impacted by a disaster every day, supporting throughout their response & recovery,” Lainez wrote.

Former FEMA Director Craig Fugate also added his input, tweeting, “[did you know] FEMA is still working Katrina Recovery in Louisiana?” He went on to observe that FEMA will likely be in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida for years to come.

In Puerto Rico, some aren’t holding their breath. Elizabeth Yeampierre, an attorney and climate justice advocate, told ThinkProgress that residents are increasingly looking to each other as the island seeks to rebuild, rather than waiting for assistance from mainland officials.

The United States isn’t using all of its resources to help Puerto Rico,” she said. “They keep saying it’s an island. There are ways to get to an island.” 

Yeampierre pointed to the Jones Act, a post-World War I shipping policy that has hindered Puerto Rico’s economy for decades and cost the island $17 billion between 1990 and 2010 alone. After the hurricane hit, Puerto Rican officials begged the White House to lift the policy, which was complicating both economic recovery efforts and access to aid (the act ensures that only U.S. owned and operated ships can easily reach the island.) The Jones Act was briefly suspended after outcry, but only for 10 days; it expired last Sunday night, leaving Puerto Rico once again in a precarious state. Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has since begged for another suspension, but mainland officials don’t appear moved.

“Most humanitarian relief supplies are being delivered by U.S. government assets, or Jones Act-qualified vessels,” said Department of Homeland Security spokesperson David Lapan.

With limitations like the Jones Act in place and Trump threatening to cut off aid, activists are also looking to other channels for relief. Yeampierre is currently working with a number of organizations who are pushing for sustainable and efficient recovery for Puerto Rico, and whose efforts include lobbying for debt relief, the repeal of the Jones Act, and a broad assessment of infrastructure, as well as transparency in resource distribution.

We want to make Puerto Rico 100 percent renewable,” Yeampierre said. “Before this disaster, Puerto Rico was already an economic disaster. Because of exploitation, the United States has turned Puerto Rico into the oldest colony in the world. All the agricultural land has disappeared. This an opportunity to have Puerto Rico go at least 50 percent food solvent. Give folks the opportunity to reclaim their lands, reclaim these local livable economies.”

On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a hurricane relief bill totaling $36.5 billion — only $5 billion of which has been specifically designated for Puerto Rico. That money itself comes in the form of a loan, which the cash-strapped island will be expected to repay. (The $16 billion in debt relief included in the bill is also not intended for Puerto Rico; instead, it’s going to the National Flood Insurance Program, which is currently facing an onslaught of requests relating to hurricane damage.)

The indignity of a loan rather than straight relief funding is only furthering the sense of injustice Puerto Ricans feel. Along with Trump’s disregard for the long-term nature of the island’s crisis, it has been haunting for residents and their families on the mainland. 

It’s disgraceful that there’s no respect for human rights,” Yeampierre said. “Telling this country, telling Puerto Ricans, that they are not a priority in this country, it’s a disgrace.”

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