A Grain of Saul: 3.4 million Americans need our help. So why aren’t we taking action?
Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island are all without power. It will be months until electricity is restored. Lines stretch a half mile long for gas and take hours to get through, sometimes only to find out there is no gas left. Only 10 people at a time are allowed into supermarkets. Hospitals are running on generators. No banking systems or ATM machines are functioning. There’s no cell service. 3.4 million Americans are completely paralyzed.
If that sounds unbelievable to you, it’s because it is. A situation like that would never happen on the mainland without the entire country rallying to support Americans we don’t know in states we may have never been to.
But it’s not the 3.4 million American citizens in Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island without power and with little help: it’s the entire island of Puerto Rico. And in the wake of a series of hurricanes, power outages aren’t Puerto Rico’s biggest concern. Hurricane Maria destroyed 80 percent of the crop value in Puerto Rico almost overnight. For an island that already imports about 85 percent of its food, that news goes well beyond a gut-punch to the native population. One billion dollars of damages have been done.
Making financial matters worse is the simple fact that Puerto Rico is already on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, along with an infrastructure that needs to be largely rebuilt, Puerto Rican officials say there are more in offing: some dams are standing on their last leg. Military and emergency aid groups are also having trouble getting to the island’s damaged airports and seaports to deliver supplies like gas, non-perishable food and water.
While the island struggles to put the pieces back together, it’s also struggling to get the attention of the mainland.
That’s because, in sad sign of the times, the last week hasn’t been dominated by talk about how to help the millions of American citizens on the island of Puerto Rico, it’s been spent debating whether it’s un-American to kneel in protest during the national anthem. It’s been spent arguing over tweets from the president, processing news of the escalating nuclear threat in North Korea, rewinding a wild speech from the United Nations, and facing fears that millions of Americans may soon lose their health insurance. We’re being inundated with so much news that we are having trouble mustering concern for an American island with a population larger than the 21 smallest states as it wrestles with “apocalyptic” conditions.
Even the aid itself came in slow. It took days for some Puerto Rican officials to even hear from the U.S. government. A federal aid package won’t be voted on until the first or second week of October, according to one White House senior aide.
It’s also not surprising many Americans don’t feel a sense of obligation to help: despite Puerto Rico being a U.S. territory, almost half of all Americans don’t know that Puerto Ricans are also American citizens. Plenty of others are unsure. Our representatives seem uninterested in adopting Puerto Rico as an official 51st state and the only Puerto Rican representative in Congress is unable to vote on any measures.
And yet, despite that, Puerto Rico is deeply dependent on us. Perhaps most relevantly, it relies on things like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — a federal organization — to help give them relief. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even went as far as calling on President Trump and the Department of Defense to send in the Navy after seeing images of what Puerto Rico pour in from journalists and citizens on the ground.
The FEMA teams that have been dispatched to Puerto Rico said the situation on the ground is “absolutely devastating,” and the challenges of getting to the island have been exacerbated by a string of natural disasters in the last few months that have stretched FEMA teams thin. Despite the presence of some federal aid workers and emergency services sent by the federal government, the public concern seems to be minimal.
As a result, the rallying cry to help the people of Puerto Rico has been meager — which is even more frustrating when you consider the fact Puerto Rico moved quickly to help the surrounding islands when it was spared the wrath of Hurricane Irma. Those U.S. Virgin Islands, by the way, are also full of American citizens fighting to put their lives back together. So what can you do?
There are plenty of options. If you want to give to charity, consider trusting your money with organizations like Global Giving Foundation or United for Puerto Rico, which are both funneling money directly towards hurricane relief efforts and providing supplies to the island.
If you’re a New York native, consider donating to Unidos, a relief fund set up by the Hispanic Federation and New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio. If you live in south Florida, the Puerto Rican Leadership Council has set up donation locations for food, water and clothing across the Miami area. In Philadelphia, El Concilio launched a Unidos PA.
GoFundMe has even launched an entire page dedicated to charities and funds you can donate to that are related to Puerto Rico’s relief efforts.
If you don’t have the means to give, you can always use your voice. Follow this template to call your representatives and pressure on them to put together a federal aid package for our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.
3.4 million American citizens are facing a truly unprecedented moment of despair, and it’s on us — their fellow citizens — to make sure they are heard. Whether it’s money or a phone call or sharing this story, do something. Anything. My bet is that if were your community in need, you’d expect your country to offer a helping hand.
By A Plus’ ISAAC SAUL
A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
For more, you can follow @Ike_Saul on Twitter.