Editor’s Note: Cristian Arroyo is a Puerto Rican freelance journalist and student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He’s been a producer and reporter for CNN and NBC News. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Since announcing his presidential bid in June 2015, Donald Trump has repeatedly promised that Mexico will pay for a wall at the southern US border. But the President has realized that this plan isn’t going to work. He has now been briefed on an alternate plan to divert billions of dollars, earmarked for disaster relief in Puerto Rico, Texas and elsewhere, to pay for his wall.
While we do not yet know if Trump is seriously considering this proposal, it has already been met with criticism – and not just from Democrats. Last Friday, Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn said he’ll “oppose any reprogramming of Harvey disaster funds.”
And, in Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rosselló tweeted, “No wall should be funded on the pain and suffering of US citizens who have endured tragedy and loss through a natural disaster.”
To even think about building the wall at the expense of hurricane victims is ludicrous. The border crisis is entirely manufactured by the Trump administration, whereas the issue of hurricane relief remains real and pressing.
How do I know? I’m Puerto Rican, and I experienced both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. I then reported about both for almost a full year for CNN Investigates. Which is to say, I know a crisis when I see it – and I witnessed at least two in 2017.
However, Maria destroyed around 90,000 homes and left more than 1 million of us in the dark, stranded and without running water and communication. Several studies have indicated that about 3,000 people died due to the hurricane and its aftermath.
Furthermore, according to the US Census Bureau, 530,000 Puerto Ricans have fled the island since 2010 because of the economic crisis. Some 130,000 of them did so after the storms in September 2017 – myself included. And the local government, which carries the burden of a $73 billion debt, reported back in August that a full recovery from both disasters would cost an estimated $139 billion.
How is this not a crisis, Mr. President?
I’d encourage Trump to talk to my family, or some of the people I met while covering the island, and tell them with a straight face that there is no crisis in Puerto Rico, and that the US territory is undeserving of the $2.5 billion assigned by Congress last year for reconstruction projects.
Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which is on its way to privatization, is still in crisis. Its infrastructure was shattered by the 165 mph winds and then patched up – not properly repaired – in a little more than a year. The delayed and ineffective response from both the local and federal governments led to the deaths of innocent people.
The grid remains fragile with poles and power lines bent all around the island and still waiting to be fixed. A single journey through the northern part of the island is sufficient evidence that the power infrastructure remains in delicate condition. And because of it, the anxiety among the people of Puerto Rico is palpable.
Even my 81-year-old grandfather worries about having to live without power for seven months again if something happens. “God forbids,” he says. But I’m fortunate to still have him.
My colleague John Sutter and I met and interviewed some extraordinary people who lost their family members as a result of the faltering power grid.
There was Pilar Guzmán Ríos, a joyful lady in the city of Corozal, who needed her CPAP machine for a sleep apnea condition and at least some ice to keep her insulin at the adequate temperature. A CPAP machine increases the air pressure in sleep apnea sufferers’ throats to help them breathe while they sleep.
When Rios’ family members found her lifeless body, they called for an ambulance that never came. The lack of power, communications and road access made it impossible for them to get help. She died just nine days after the storm. “Even the cats prayed for Pilar,” a grieving relative said.
Natalio “Pepito” Rodriguez Lebron, a loving grandfather, died in his wife’s arms four months after the storm when the generator powering his CPAP machine broke down in the middle of the night. Six months after Maria, the city of Maunabo – where Lebron lived – was running solely on generators provided by the US Army Corps of Engineers, one of the agencies to which the disaster fund relief was assigned.
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Diverting a portion of this funding would have catastrophic consequences should another hurricane like Maria hit the island. Trump was ready to take the blame for the current shutdown. I’m wondering if he’d be willing to bear the responsibility if another devastating hurricane hit Puerto Rico after he reallocated disaster-relief funds to build his wall. Or would it somehow be the Democrats’ fault?
When talking about a crisis, Mr. President. Remember Pilar, Pepito and my grandfather. Remember Puerto Rico. This is a real crisis that is affecting our lives.