In September 2017, one hundred years after Puerto Ricans gained U.S. citizenship, Hurricane Maria unleashed its fury on the island. And President Donald Trump’s incompetence and callous indifference for Puerto Ricans — our fellow Americans — turned the aftermath of the natural disaster into a humanitarian catastrophe that continues to this day.
A month later, I traveled to Puerto Rico myself to bear witness to the devastation. The pain and suffering I saw was the result of the Trump administration’s malpractice. Military assets weren’t fully or quickly deployed in proportional response to the emergency. FEMA, the U.S. government’s key disaster response agency, dropped the ball. Two years after Hurricane Maria, only one third of federal relief funds had reached the island. Of the more than 9,000 requests for assistance that FEMA received in Puerto Rico, only 190 had been funded.
In the Senate, I helped lead the fight to hold the Trump administration accountable for its slow response, including sending a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture when nutrition assistance funds were being released far too slowly. I cannot imagine the pain, and the loss, that far too many Puerto Ricans have faced over the past three years. Even today, many homes, schools and hospitals on the island lack electricity or remain in need of repair.
But here’s the promise that Joe Biden and I will make to you: We see you, we hear you, and every day, we stand with you.
We know that the road ahead remains tough. This year, Puerto Rico was struck by another natural disaster, the largest earthquake on the island in more than 100 years, which resulted in further destruction and blackouts in over 90 percent of the island. And now the island is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has decimated its travel and tourism industry. Given the island’s weak health infrastructure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 50 percent of COVID-19 cases remain unreported.
And all of these challenges are hitting the island at a time when approximately one third of Puerto Ricans in the formal work force had filed for some type of unemployment assistance — and one recent estimate put the island’s unemployment rate close to 40 percent. What’s more, over 40 percent of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line with Puerto Rican households earning, on average, one third of the U.S. income.
In the richest nation on earth, this is unacceptable.
That is why Joe Biden and I have a plan that will not only help Puerto Rico recover, but will also help every family thrive. Our plan starts with supporting a full recovery and rebuilding Puerto Rico’s resilient infrastructure so it’s capable of withstanding the next hurricane by accelerating access to promised funds, forgiving disaster relief loans, and ensuring that recovery dollars benefit local businesses.
We will invest in Puerto Rico’s future by strengthening Puerto Rico’s power system, improving access to affordable, quality, health care, and making sure no family goes hungry. And we will also provide relief from unsustainable debt so Puerto Rico can get back on track, while expanding access to education and job opportunities so the next generation of Puerto Ricans can pursue their dreams.
America’s founding promise of equality for all doesn’t just extend to the Americans who live on our mainland. It extends to those who live in Puerto Rico, as well. And when Joe and I are in the White House, we will honor our obligations to our fellow citizens, embrace a stronger, more compassionate approach to reverse the damage that remains three years after Hurricane Maria, and help usher in a brighter future for all of the Americans who call Puerto Rico home.
Kamala Harris, a U.S. senator from California, is Joe Biden’s running mate as the Democratic nominee for vice president. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.