Editor’s Note: Luis V. Gutiérrez represented the 4th Congressional District of Illinois for more than 25 years and has been a leading advocate for immigration reform, health care and climate action. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
Three years after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, hardship on the US territory is still palpable. Thousands of Puerto Ricans still live under blue tarps after losing their homes in the storm. Hundreds of schools shut down after the destruction of September 20, 2017. Death tolls in the storm’s wake range from 3,000 to as many as 4,645 – the exact tally is likely to remain a mystery. And the island’s crippled economy hasn’t recovered.
But Friday, after years of inaction and omission, and only 45 days before the election, President Donald Trump, who once boasted “I’m the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico,” decided it was time to send the island $13 billion in disaster aid. Before the announcement, the Trump administration had been holding back billions in funds approved by Congress for disaster relief in Puerto Rico.
Such a cynical move could only lead us to ask: Why now?
Voters in Florida, a key battleground state, are crucial for the presidential election. It’s no coincidence that the Sunshine State is home to thousands of Puerto Ricans who fled the island after Maria. With the many others that were there before the tragedy, Puerto Ricans now make up almost a third of the state’s eligible Hispanic voters, a similar share to that of Cubans, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of US Census Bureau data.
The consequences of deadly hurricanes, extreme weather and earthquakes often begin to fade from the news and conversation weeks after they hit. The world moves on. But those living in Puerto Rico cannot move on. Because the cracked and unstable bridges and roads, traffic disruptions, abandoned homes and a forever-changed population are daily reminders that our home is not yet whole.
I was still serving in Congress when the hurricane hit Puerto Rico. The first few weeks were overwhelming. I wanted to get to the island as soon as I could, but President Trump restricted access to planes for members of Congress. I was finally able to get a commercial flight to the island nine days after the storm.
While Trump was suggesting that Puerto Ricans only wait for government assistance with their hands crossed, I personally saw how we Boricuas in the mainland were the first to get to the island with hands on deck ready to work.
I visited Puerto Rico 12 times in the first three months of the tragedy’s aftermath and saw how terrible and ineffective the federal government’s response was.
Puerto Rico has endured tragedy and loss. The need is real. Only 200 long-term recovery projects have been funded in Puerto Rico, out of more than 9,000 requests, according to FEMA’s own count.
By the end of 2018, Hurricane Maria had displaced more than 130,000 Puerto Ricans, according to data from the US Census Bureau. The almost 4% drop in the population changed the island’s demographics and put a mental and emotional strain on families who’ve been separated out of economic and health necessity.
This is all to say: We cannot look away from Puerto Rico. Our fellow Americans living here are still struggling with a storm three years after it made landfall. We still need robust investment in infrastructure, health, education to rebuild, and regrow.
Paying attention to the real needs in Puerto Rico and not only to what is solely politically convenient is now more critical than ever as we see an increased risk from the threat of more dangerous and frequent storms.
The 2020 hurricane season was projected to be “extremely active,” and it has lived up to that projection. Puerto Rico has already been in the path of two major storms. Both Hurricane Isaias and Tropical Storm Laura caused flooding and shortages in power and running water on the island.
This is not an accident. It is not bad luck. This is the new normal under climate change. Global warming is fueling stronger and more destructive hurricanes.
One day, one year, three years: The reality is still the same. The island we love, the island I profoundly love, is in constant danger at the mercy of a climate crisis that will define our generation and the ones to come. This is why, on the third anniversary, we need to remind everyone that for Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria feels like it was yesterday and could well be our tomorrow. And, most importantly, that Puerto Rico’s pain shouldn’t be used as a political token.