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Hurricane Response in Devastated Puerto Rico Becomes Fairness Test for U.S.

Days after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, the response to the storm is being seen as a test of the degree of fairness communities of colour can expect in the country’s response to climate disasters.

News reports from the poor, vulnerable territory indicate that its power grid could be offline for up to six months. The 316-metre Guajataca Dam, which holds back an artificial lake that spans about five square kilometres, sustained damage in the storm and could collapse at any time, CBC reports. “We don’t know how long it’s going to hold,” said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “The integrity of the structure has been compromised in a significant way.”

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And as of Saturday, when 50 mayors and representatives met government emergency operations officials in the capital of San Juan, about 20 other communities had still not been able to make contact, “leaving major gaps in the broader understanding of the damage Maria left behind,” the Washington Post states.

“The mayors greeted each other with hugs and tears, and they pleaded with their governor for some of the things their communities need most: drinking water, prescription drugs, gasoline, oxygen tanks, and satellite phones,” the Post notes. “The entire population remains without electricity. Families everywhere are unable to buy food or medical treatment. Roads remain waterlogged, and looting has begun to take place at night.”

The confirmed death toll so far stands at 10, with more than 15,000 people in shelters.

As aid begins to flow to Puerto Rico, with the federal control board overseeing the island territory’s US$73-billion debt authorizing $1 billion in local funds for hurricane relief, the focus is beginning to turn to a fair, resilient recovery.

“As is so often the case, the harm hit hardest those with the fewest resources,” InsideClimate News notes. “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.”

With 44% of the island’s 3.4 million people already living below the poverty line, “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.” Puerto Rico uses one-third as much energy per capita as the rest of the U.S., and emits less than half the carbon dioxide.

Which leads to one of the toughest questions on the horizon: “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.”

“These hurricanes wash away the mask of what’s happening in this country in terms of poverty and inequality,” Damien Jones, environmental justice outreach advocate with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference last week.

“Climate change exacerbates all inequalities,” agreed Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club’s director for environmental justice and community partnerships. “It’s a threat multiplier. And what’s going on with Puerto Rico…the whole island of Vieques is a Superfund site,” after being used by the U.S. military as a bombing range.

Former city engineer and environmental planner Laureen Boles, now state director with the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, recalled how the biggest polluters in the U.S. are routinely located near minority communities.

“In city planning, they teach us how to site an industry,” she said. “Look for a community with low voter turnout. Look for a community that’s politically marginalized. Look for a community with a lot of churches. Look for a community with majority-minority population. There was a list of maybe 10 things we were supposed to look for,” and “they didn’t have to put a label on top of it. I knew exactly who they were talking about,” because “I grew up in one of those communities.”