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WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 18: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) listens during a news conference to introduce the "Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021" at Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill March 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 18: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) listens during a news conference to introduce the "Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021" at Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill March 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo:…

AOC brings back crucial reminder that Hurricane Maria relief hasn’t reached Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico continues to lack the adequate infrastructure funding necessary to build back from catastrophes, and the consequences have been deadly. 

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On Wednesday, June 2, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez shared with her followers on Twitter what she was up to at the end of May. According to the New York representative, she visited Puerto Rico for the first time in over a year due to COVID to see her abuela, who had fallen ill.

She shared two images of her abuela’s living conditions, depicting a falling and warped ceiling, a single armchair, buckets to catch leaks, and a near unlivable situation for an elderly woman. 

This issue stems back to 2017, when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. The subsequent withholding and delaying of funds by the Trump Administration has continued under Biden and Puerto Rico’s own government. 

“People are being forced to flee ancestral homes, & developers are taking them,” Rep. AOC wrote, later adding that what is happening to Puerto Rico is systemic, as much of the delay in aid and dismal handling of funds can be traced back to ‘La Junta,’ a fiscal control board — with connections to Wall Street — that the U.S. government gave power to over Puerto Rico. 

Local families in Puerto Rico have been systematically pushed out of their ancestral homes by developers who see dilapidated properties as an opportunity for investment, resulting in gentrification.

“La Junta, local policies, etc were all on the same page: policies that pushed out local families. To turn this around, we need audits & get recovery relief to people ASAP, without the onerous strings,” AOC continued. 

She sourced a report by American Oversight, which began its investigation into the $300 million contract for the restoration of power in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria to a small company with “potential” ties to former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. 

This company, known as Whitefish Energy, failed to restore power for the 11 months that Puerto Rico endured without it, and Zinke later resigned from his position in 2018. 

American Oversight continues to investigate why the small company with close ties to the Trump Administration was awarded the contract. 

In other words, it goes beyond the Trump administration’s withholding of funds for years. That in itself has also played a major role. 

In April, a Housing and Urban Development Inspector General report revealed the barriers Trump’s administration put in place so that Puerto Rico’s aid would be seriously hindered. Twenty billion dollars in aid after Maria’s catastrophic proportions has yet to be fully delivered to the island. 

The report confirmed Puerto Rico-born Rep. Nydia Velázquez’s speculation since 2019  that the Trump administration went out of its way to stall life-saving aid. The report shed light on years of withholding of funds by the Trump administration, and that a back-and-forth between its officials led to a drawn-out spectacle where, even at the end of his administration, the entirety of funds had yet to be released. 


That same month, the Biden administration removed restrictions from Puerto Rico that limited its recovery efforts, and he announced an obligation to deliver the $8.2 billion in federal mitigation funds left to distribute. A month earlier, his administration freed $1.3 billion in relief funding for the island. 

However, it is questionable whether the funds designated by the federal government have been distributed ethically by the Puerto Rico Department of Housing and Whitefish Energy, and whether Puerto Ricans are seeing any of the aid. 

The slow disbursement is partly attributed to the decision made by FEMA and the government of Puerto Rico to use an alternative process for approval and disbursement.

The process under Section 428 of the Stafford Act is vague, highly bureaucratic, and the period to reach agreements on cost estimates for these projects has been extended several times— most recently until December 31, 2021.

The failure to disburse the aid, though it hasn’t been wholly disbursed and has lagged for far too long, largely falls on the Puerto Rico authorities. It is their responsibility to comply with U.S. rules and regulations.

At the end of May, a second child’s death in a year brought attention back to the glaring neglect from the U.S. and the island’s government. The death occurred in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where its only hospital was destroyed after Hurricane Maria, and it has yet to be rebuilt. 

This means the general and emergency needs of some 9,000 Viequenses have been neglected for over three years. 

The reason is that of $71 billion designated by the U.S. Government to aid Puerto Rico victims of Hurricane Maria nearly four years ago, as well as Hurricane Irma and a 6.4 magnitude earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, just $20.5 billion has been disbursed. 

Of FEMA’s “obligated” funds to Puerto Rico, just 41% have been disbursed. Financial assistance from entities other than FEMA have disbursed just 41% of their total obligation, according to recovery.pr. 

As the next Hurricane season nears and the funds have yet to be adequately disbursed by Puerto Rico’s government, it is a crucial reminder to demand action.  

“And for the record,” AOC continued in her thread. “My abuela is doing okay. It’s not about us, but about what’s happening to Puerto Ricans across the island. She had a place to go to and be cared for - what about the thousands of people who don’t?”

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