Puerto Rico was rocked by Hurricane Maria, ruined by FEMA’s negligence, reviled by Trump

By Jorge Luis Vasquez Jr.

It is beyond confounding to learn that this year, as Puerto Rico struggled to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, $10 million was diverted from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay to put children in the cages of detention centers.

This past winter, Jacky Torres, who is 35 years old and a single mother of three children, all under age 8 and all with chronic health problems, walked into a public school gymnasium in the Bronx to seek free legal help. Her home had been decimated by Hurricane Maria and she, like thousands of others, had used up what little money she had to try and find a new life in New York. FEMA initially placed her and her children in a single hotel room at a Holiday Inn, but the agency eventually denied her a voucher because she couldn’t prove she had lost her home.

Today, she and her children are stuck in New York’s homeless shelter system. There are still thousands living across the country just like her, and I have to ask myself, “Whose values are guiding our policymakers?” They certainly aren’t the values passed down by my great-grandmother, Abuelita Cookie as we called her, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1893.

Gross negligence devastated Puerto Rico

She was 111 years old when she passed away in 2004. She was 5 years old when the United States first invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. She was 24 when she and all Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens, but it wasn’t until she turned 54 in 1947 that the United States granted Puerto Rico the right to elect its own governor. Seventy years later the Puerto Rican governor, embarrassed at having bungled up Puerto Rico’s own response to the tragedy, would help cover up the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.

In the 1950s, Abuelita Cookie and my grandmother Abuela Beba were part of a wave of Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York City’s Lower East Side in search of opportunity. But Abuelita never let us forget our roots and never, ever let us leave her house hungry. When you visited Abuelita Cookie’s home, I would greet her by saying “bendicion” and then I sat at the kitchen table, and she’d feed me crackers and café con leche while Frankie Ruiz or Hector Lavoe played in the background.

More: I survived Hurricane Maria. As Hurricane Florence hits, here’s what I wish I’d known.

‘I think they lost their way here’: Puerto Rico six months after Hurricane Maria

FEMA rules can deny help to poor hurricane victims who need it most. Here’s why.

She regaled me with stories from the homeland. I knew early on what Puerto Rico was like before cars, before electricity, before America. Sadly, due to America’s gross negligence, we now know what Puerto Rico is like after electricity.

When Maria hit last year, I was on the first available flight in November to the island to check on family. My father and his parents still live there, and I grew up spending my summers playing with kids in the streets there. My grandparents had managed to communicate through a neighbor’s phone, but my father, who lived only 7 miles away, had no idea I was coming.

I remember the sense of dread that filled my chest while driving through Old San Juan, seeing everything still boarded up, split trees, totaled cars, the majority of the island still without power and Constitution Row, the main strip of San Juan, completely decimated.

No water, no food, no electricity. No help.

There is a sizable retirement community in Vega Baja, where my grandparents live. Both my father and grandfather are cancer survivors with chronic health problems, and I hustled to make sure they both had what they needed. But I watched helplessly as hundreds waited hours to buy a generator, water or food only to be told there were no generators. There was no water. There was no food.

And all the while, the United States stood by and our president extolled America’s virtues over a death count it claimed had reached only 16 two weeks after the hurricane had ended. It took nearly a year before U.S. officials would admit that a much larger number had perished; the death toll was actually 2,975 and counting.

Yet today, the plight and the gross negligence suffered by Puerto Ricans at the hands of our government remain largely ignored.

When I watched FEMA laud its efforts each night on TV almost a year ago, I knew, firsthand, that no one from the agency had spoken to a single member of my family. In fact, FEMA still hasn’t.

It’s a year after Hurricane Maria, and I’m still providing legal assistance to countless Puerto Ricans who are still denied the FEMA benefits they’ve paid for and are entitled to. Redeeming a FEMA voucher requires submitting a copy of the deed to one’s home, but what do you do with a home your family has lived in for more than 100 years?

Puerto Ricans, and soon residents in North and South Carolina, need this administration to put our tax dollars to good use, which means funding FEMA fully so that we’re providing real housing to taxpayers who need it – rather than diverting that money to pay for placing child refugees at the border in the prisons we call detention centers.

This article provided by NewsEdge.