Marred by a housing and food crisis, on the six month anniversary of Hurricane Maria devastating the U.S. colony, disconcerted Puerto Ricans, members of civil rights groups, and the government, protested in front of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA building in Washington D.C.
The catastrophic hurricane made a landfall in the U.S. colony on Sept. 20, shattering building structures, crops, the power grid and closing the ports of entry.
"We are here today for our families in Puerto Rico," Julio Lopez-Varona, an organizer with the Center for Popular Democracy told Think Progress. "On the six month anniversary of Hurricane Maria, things are not better."
"Devastation caused by [the hurricane] is unprecedented," a Hispanic Federation speaker said, according to Think Progress. "[The United States] has allowed the island to fall behind in every measure." The politician lamented, "Where the hell has [FEMA] been?"
A Puerto Rican woman now living in New York told Think Progress, "I am here for my daughter — my daughter has a medical condition — so we had to come after Maria to take care of that. I am alone. I need housing," she said. "There are thousands of us living this way. [So many of us] are here pleading for support."
"Kids need to be in school, they need a health care system that works for everyone, and it’s not happening. So we must continue to protest, we must continue to be heard," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). "We say to FEMA, do not leave until every family has what they need to survive, to thrive."
FEMA has come under severe criticism for its failure to provide help to Puerto Ricans in dire situations. The U.S. agency has failed to respond to people looking for respite amid situations demanding urgency. With the island in crisis, FEMA has rejected the pleas of Puerto Ricans who don't have a deed to their home.
But the issue runs much deeper, as according to government estimates, over half of the houses here are "informal" – meaning they were built without permits, with no title.
"I've seen many people being denied three or four times, and just deciding it's not worth the stress," Sarah Delgado, an attorney volunteering with a legal aid group that's helping people appeal their denials, told the NPR. "They're getting discouraged, and they're just giving up."
The federal agency responsible for aiding the island with billions of dollars as part of the disaster relief has been cautious over fraudulent claims, and to keep the process in check, has deployed a long list of eligibility and documentation requirements to guard against them. Puerto Ricans are not able to meet many of these requirements.
"It's something that has been there forever, and we were just blessed never to have had a hurricane like the one we did," Fernando Gil Enseñat, Puerto Rico's housing secretary, told NPR, adding that Hurricane Maria, has unfolded "all of the flaws" in the island's housing policies, going back to the 1930s and 1940s, at a time when the industrialization policies drove people from the mountainous countryside to the cities.
On the other end, the food crisis continues to plague the island. Hundreds of people queuing up in front of food retail giants like Walmart and other supermarket went home empty-handed.
Based on emails exchanged between the food retailers and the government officials responsible for the island, The Associated Press reported Tuesday that tons of poultry, dairy, and vegetables went to waste when the island was gripped by the hurricane as FEMA failed to respond to food stores' cry for help asking for the generator fuel necessary to save the perishables.
AP also reported that several groups, including private chains on the island, had sent a letter to the Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., in October asking for documents from the Department of Homeland Security inquiring about FEMA’s preparation for and response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
According to the Associated Press, FEMA spokesman Daniel Llargues said in an email Tuesday that the agency knew of the letter and has been consistently working with the committee and will continue to do so.
“The protection of life and safety is our first priority in any response, including working closely with the government of Puerto Rico to support the fueling mission for critical infrastructure” such as hospitals and communications centers, Llargues said, who also said that FEMA has distributed over 13 million gallons of fuel to date.
Manuel Reyes, the executive vice president of the Puerto Rico Chamber of Marketing, Industry, and Distribution of Food, who manages grocers and food distribution channels on the island, told the AP, "Since the beginning we made the local and federal governments aware of this, but as far as we know FEMA did not provide fuel or made trucks available to the private food distribution network."
"We believe they did provide some fuel to hospitals. We were forced to establish our own distribution system for our members using retrofitted waste-water trucks in order to keep some stores opened and food from going bad."
"But by that time the emergency generators, which are not designed for continuous operation, began failing and we needed new ones or spare parts but few were available," Reyes further said. "No help with that either."