Devastated Puerto Rico Tests Fairness of Response to Climate Disasters

Hurricane Maria wrecked the impoverished island’s electrical grid and laid open toxic sites. How will Congress handle the crisis?

Flooding and wind from Hurricane Maria caused widespread damage in Puerto Rico. Credit: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
Hurricane Maria caused widespread damage in Puerto Rico. It hit within weeks of Hurricanes Irma striking Florida and Harvey flooding the Texas coast. Credit: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

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Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico presents a test case of the United States’ response to climate-related damages on a small island territory that is impoverished, vulnerable and underrepresented in Congress. The storm caused widespread damage that could leave people homeless, jobless and without clean water or electricity for months. As is so often the case, the harm hit hardest those with the fewest resources.

It’s not just that Puerto Rico was already laden with chronic debt and acutely injured by an earlier storm that had passed just north of the island two weeks before. Nor is it merely that Maria, probably the most destructive hurricane in the island’s history, is the kind of event that climate change experts have long warned would be among the risks facing coastal areas as the planet warms.

From the vantage point of environmental justice, this storm also represents many of the ways that those risks are unfairly distributed—and whether the United States, like the world as a whole, is prepared to come to the aid of poor and vulnerable communities that have contributed little to climate change.

The Category 4 hurricane wiped out Puerto Rico’s electric grid, and it’s expected to be out for months, leaving the island’s 3.4 million people—about 44 percent of whom already lived below the poverty line—isolated without life’s basic necessities. As of late Thursday, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, said there had been no contact with officials in 85 percent of the island.

Among the questions will be this narrow one, which Congress and the White House will have to grapple with: If there is not enough money to pay all the costs, yet untallied, of the record hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico this summer, will the funds be equitably allocated? The two other devastated states have among the largest voting blocs in Congress, and Puerto Rico has no vote.

Residents waited in line to stock up on diminishing gas supplies in the wake of the hurricane. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images
Residents waited in line to stock up on diminishing gas supplies in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which made landfall on the island Sept. 20 with 155 mph winds. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

Puerto Rico is, in many ways, a microcosm for climate fairness issues at the global level. Puerto Ricans use one-third as much energy and emit less than half as much carbon dioxide as the rest of the United States on a per capita basis yet bear the risk of increased hurricane activity in a warming Atlantic basin.

Like its Caribbean neighbor, the U.S. Virgin Islands, which was also hit by hurricanes Maria and Irma, Puerto Rico is a part of the world that doesn’t contribute significantly to climate change but is impacted significantly by it.

Since 2003, more than 4,000 natural disasters, including extreme temperatures and droughts, storms, floods and epidemics, have wreaked havoc on the Caribbean, up from fewer than 100 over a similar time period at the beginning of the 20th century. The number of the strongest storms, Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, will likely increase over the coming century, according to the latest National Climate Assessment.

“This is the new norm,” Christina Chan, climate resilience practice director for the World Resources Institute and former branch chief for the U.S. State Department’s climate change office, said. “How do we start building that into the bloodstream of our economic, social and development work, whether you are talking domestic or international?”

How Will Congress Respond?

The initial federal response to Maria suggests the U.S. will step up.

As news of the devastation on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands made headlines on the mainland, President Donald Trump upped the federal response from “emergency” declarations to “disaster” declarations for the territories, and prominent Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah, pledged their support.

The declarations will cover millions of dollars worth of initial recovery efforts, but full recovery and rebuilding costs will be in the tens of billions and will follow on the heels of unprecedented hurricane recovery spending in Texas and Florida, states with a combined Congressional delegation of more than 60 representatives, mostly Republicans. Puerto Rico has one, non-voting “resident commissioner” in Congress, Jenniffer González.

A tweet from Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in Congress.

“Texas and Florida will receive the bulk of that funding,” Roger-Mark De Souza, director of population, environmental security and resilience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said. “It doesn’t mean that there isn’t additional need or greater need on these more vulnerable territories, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, so there needs to be a consideration of how we balance those allocations, to meet the needs of those who are most vulnerable.”

Toxic Sites, Flooding Raise Health Risks

Low-income, minority communities in Texas and Florida also face a long road to recovery, though the situation in Puerto Rico will likely be more difficult.

Judith Enck, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator for Region 2, which includes Puerto Rico, said she’s particularly worried about Cano Martin Pena, a low-income community in the capital, San Juan.

“Even when there is just a few inches of rain, they have major flooding problems, and reports are there were over 30 inches of rain in San Juan,” Enck said. “On a routine basis, they had problems where there was flooding and then people’s furniture would get all wet and then they would endure mold, and then they would have more incidents of asthma—it’s just a vicious cycle. There is also just a huge amount of sewage in the floodwaters, so people are exposed to pathogens and bacteria and are prone to rashes and skin diseases.”

Puerto Rico is home to a slew of other toxic sites, many of which lack sufficient safeguards to protect surrounding communities under the best of conditions, let alone a major hurricane.

More than half of Puerto Rico’s municipal landfills are in violation of EPA’s regulations, according to a 2016 report from the bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico. The territory is also home to 23 Superfund sites that pose a risk to surrounding soil and groundwater, including much of the island of Vieques, which the U.S. military used as a bomb-test site for decades.

Perhaps of greatest concern, however, is a five-story coal ash pile near an electric power plant in Guayama, a low-income community on Puerto Rico’s Caribbean coast. The ash, according to EPA testing, contains arsenic, chromium and selenium, which have been linked to serious health effects, such as higher rates of asthma, birth defects and cancer according to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The senator recently wrote to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, urging him to take appropriate measures to protect the health of Puerto Ricans from “potentially deadly toxic exposure.”

Adriana Gonzalez, Sierra Club’s environmental justice organizer for Puerto Rico, said before Maria made landfall that she feared the ash will “either blow with the wind or rain will wash it off.”

The potential impacts on low-income communities of color led former EPA advisor Michael Dorsey to ask more than a year ago whether Puerto Rico was the next Flint, referring to the Michigan city where low-income communities of color were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water. Dorsey urged the nation to do something about similar pollution concerns in Puerto Rico, before it was too late.

It’s still too early to assess the full scope of the damage wrought by Maria or the amount of federal aid the territory will need or receive. One image, however, is beginning to emerge. Puerto Rico is quickly becoming a poster child for a problem that spans the globe; the disproportionate impacts of climate change risks on the poor, vulnerable and especially colonial and island nations.