Protesters in Philadelphia demand HUD release aid for Puerto Rico
The recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico have only increased urgency, demonstrators said, for HUD to release aid allocated after Hurricane Maria.
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On Jan. 15, around 20 protesters gathered outside of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Mid-Atlantic offices in Center City, Philadelphia, calling for the department to release the more than $10 billion of the $20 billion in aid for Puerto Rico that was allocated by Congress after Hurricanes María and Irma hit the island in 2017, and has still yet to be distributed.
The protest was planned prior to the sequence of earthquakes which has decimated the southern part of the island, displacing more than 8,000 people from their homes and forcing them to flee to government shelters. Since Dec. 28, more than 20 earthquakes of magnitude 4.5 or higher have damaged homes, caused power outages, and resulted in injuries and one death.
Demonstrators on Wednesday said devastation from the earthquakes, including the easily damaged electrical grid, highlights the continued urgency for HUD to release the funding. The Philadelphia protest was planned in coordination with other Power 4 Puerto Rico protests held the same day outside of the HUD offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.
“Puerto Rico needs a completely green infrastructure in terms of its electricity,” Karen Rodriguez, lead organizer of the protest and the People for Puerto Rico March, which took place in September on the anniversary of Hurricane María.
“Some of the money that’s been held back was going to be earmarked to rebuild that electrical grid,” she added, noting that much of the damage from Hurricanes Maria and Irma has only been exacerbated by the recent sequence of earthquakes.
Vanessa Maria Graber, an organizer with local grassroots organization Philly Boricuas, said that though the recent release of $8.5 billion of the allotted aid to Puerto Rico on Jan. 14, authorized by President Donald Trump, was “great,” “HUD is still acting illegally.”
“Our families are living in a constant state of fear, anxiety, and stress, not only because of the earthquakes and the aftermath of Maria, but because of its colonial state,” said Graber, who has family on the island.
Graber also urged the crowd to support the local earthquake relief drive, spearheaded by Philly Boricuas, in collecting 1,500 emergency backpacks that will be distributed to people who have been displaced in the southern part of the island that has been hardest hit by the earthquakes.
Organizers started sending supplies this week, and some of the members of Philly Boricuas will be going to Puerto Rico this weekend to aid in directly distributing supplies.
Rodriguez said that both the efforts of protesters to demand HUD release aid, as well as the earthquake relief drive, are the most recent examples of the ways in which the Puerto Rican diaspora on the U.S. mainland has filled in the gaps to support Puerto Ricans on the island and provide vital relief, even while the federal administration and Puerto Rico’s government have been slow to deliver the support Puerto Ricans urgently need.
“If it wasn’t for the diaspora community, we would have starving people in Puerto Rico. Because right after Hurricane Maria, when the administration was very slow to respond, it was us that mobilized all of our Puerto Rican communities across the entire country, and we found ways to get food, water, anything that people needed, to the island,” Rodriguez said.
“And we are doing the same thing again, we are mobilizing, we are sending all kinds of things now because again, this administration is slow, and has not responded in the way that it needed to,” she added.
The small crowd, gathered outside of 100 Penn Square, across from City Hall, consisted of members of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community, as well as other members of other communities in Philadelphia who came to show support.
“I think we’re treating the citizens of the United States unfairly, and there isn’t any reason why the people from Puerto Rico who experience such horrendous, devastating effects, mostly of climate change, should be put on the backburner,” said Bonnie Hallam, a local resident who attended the protest with her daughter.
“This protest was actually planned prior to the earthquakes in Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria and the brunt of the climate injustice that Puerto Ricans and black and brown neighborhoods are taking not just in Puerto Rico, but around this country and around the world,” said Mikhel Harrison, Pennsylvania state director of All on the Line, and co-organizer of the Jan. 15 protest.
The earthquake relief drive run by Philly Boricuas is accepting donations at specific drop-off points throughout Philadelphia through Jan. 17. More information is available on their website.