Professor Cecilio Ortiz Garcia talks disaster recovery after Hurricane Maria

Professor Cecilio Ortiz Garcia talks disaster recovery after Hurricane Maria

Ella Pinkert, Contributing Writer

On Monday, Sept. 28, prominent Puerto Rican community members and political voices spoke at a webinar organized by the Environmental Studies Department and the company Oxfam. 

The webinar discussed how their communities worked to respond and recover from three disasters over three years —  hurricanes Maria and Irma, severe earthquakes, and the COVID-19 pandemic — ultimately calling for the federal government to recognize and fund local organizations in disaster relief. 

Local experts, including Macalester visiting professor of environmental studies Cecilio Ortiz Garcia, spoke passionately about the lessons that could be learned from Puerto Rico’s disaster response efforts and the need for emergency relief reform.

Hurricanes Maria and Irma ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, leaving the island devastated. In early 2020, two extreme earthquakes rattled the island, again bringing entire cities to the ground. To make things worse, Puerto Rico is now grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The morning’s speakers asserted that the federal government has failed in its allotment of emergency funding. According to Congresswoman Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.), who contributed to the webinar, the government has only spent two percent of the $20.2 billion allocated for Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery efforts. This money has not been extended to those who need it. 

“Puerto Ricans who still don’t have a safe roof should not have to wait another day for these funds to be utilized,” Velazquez said. 

María “Mayita” Meléndez, mayor of the city of Ponce, spoke about the challenges local governments throughout Puerto Rico have faced in the aftermath of these disasters. She cited minimal local cash reserves and the delay in federal fund allocation as causing a “cash management crisis.” 

Although grateful for the federal government’s assistance, she said that the government failing to assign funds in a timely manner comes with consequences. 

Beatriz Grau has over 10 years of experience aiding homeless individuals and families and increasing “access to secure and affordable housing in Puerto Rico.” She also identified the “lack of agility of the government,” specifically in “converting relief money into services,” as a significant failure in the Puerto Rico disaster relief efforts. 

Housing response sectors have found far more success with direct grants than federal relief funds. The Continuum of Care (CoC), a federal program committed to ending homelessness, directly supports local organizations through grants. While these grants empower local groups and have, in large part, proven to be effective, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) emergency relief funds often do not reach local experts until months after the disaster.

“There should be some flexibilities, some emergency fund… to allocate to local government and organizations to attend housing emergencies, immediately after it happens,” Grau said. 

When disaster strikes, people are displaced immediately. Grau suggested that the director of the area’s HUD field office assign grants to those local housing nonprofits as promptly as possible. 

“These CPD directors have their ear on the ground, and they have the capability and expertise to act immediately on deploying a housing expert locally,” she continued.

Quick action proved to be effective after the earthquakes. The CoC and emergency solutions grant fund supported organizations that were able to react to the situation promptly, successfully rehousing 836 survivors. 

The other speakers agreed that empowering local communities and organizations can remedy funding shortcomings. Juana Santiago, liaison from the organization Unidos por la Comunidad Arenas de Guánica, described how they are an example of how local organizations work quickly and diligently to restore their communities, while the federal government is slow to respond. 

Arenas, where the organization is based, is a town of just 370 citizens that was devastated by Hurricanes María and Irma. Community members picked rubble up off of the streets, delivered water to neighbors and helped put up new power-line posts, among other actions, without the federal government’s assistance. Santiago said that this response strengthened Arenas, making it relatively prepared for the next disaster.

The group has evolved as new disasters struck. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization worked to bring telehealth programs to the town. They administer COVID-19 tests, give psychological support to those who need it and are sewing masks for the community. 

“We have been models for other communities to replicate our goals, centered on altruism, empowerment, and initiative of individuals, promoting genuine help, and then conditional support,” Santiago said. “Being able to connect our citizens with community services alert them to their own taking of actions, both for themselves and for their families.”

The speakers highlighted the importance of local knowledge and collaboration between affected communities and the federal government. 

“By working together as a group, we gave our people [a] stronger voice and will more effectively and efficiently deal with the structural issue that affects us,” Meléndez said.

“As the closest governmental entity to our people and our communities, we have a greater understanding of their needs, aspirations and capabilities,” she continued.

Professor Cecilio Ortiz Garcia shared strong criticisms of FEMA, focusing on its “antiquity” and “ignorance.”

“They’re ignorant because of their incapacity to co-evolve and to co-produce new knowledge collaboratively with the local expert resources that they have not only in Puerto Rico but across the country,” Ortiz Garcia said. 

Ortiz Garcia believes that the federal government, including FEMA, needs to understand what communities can do for their members. He explained that FEMA neglects to communicate with locals and doesn’t understand their circumstances and that these weak relationships are the central issue in emergency response. 

He also cited “disaster colonialism” as suppressing local knowledge.

“If we continue to work under this coloniality that permeates everything from the fiscal control board to the way we’ve handled these disasters, that local knowledge is never going to be given its place,” Ortiz Garcia said.

[email protected]