Puerto Rico: Racializing the Federal Response

Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria racial
Photo: AP

On October 3rd, President Donald J. Trump refuted claims that Puerto Rico needs a more expansive relief package by stating the U.S. has done a fantastic job, but “at the local level, they have to give us more help.”

The President’s words mirrored earlier remarks wherein dismissed claims from Puerto Rican leaders that the response was inadequate, saying Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them.” Though many felt the President’s words were shocking and played into racist stereotypes, President Trump’s statements fall in line with the United States’ history racializing the federal response to natural disasters, even as communities of color feel a greater impact of natural disasters than white communities due to segregation and uneven access to resources.

President Trump’s words come at a critical time for Puerto Rico: FEMA has yet to authorize many of the disaster response tools that should be available to the 3.4 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico, and instead, a bill set to be voted on by the House Appropriations Committee would have the already in-debt Puerto Rico fund their recovery by borrowing 5 billion from the U.S.

An early example of the ways the U.S. racialized its response to natural disasters can be seen in the hurricane that decimated Galveston, Texas in September of 1900. In the aftermath of this tragedy, the government sanctioned the lynching of dozens of the city’s Black residents, who were accused of looting. Texas politicians later used the storm as a pretext to restrict voting access for Black Texans.

In recent history, we can look to Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of Katrina’s destruction, former First Lady Barbara Bush (the mother of then-president George W. Bush) implied the hurricane’s devastation was to the benefit of New Orleans evacuees who were sheltered at the Houston Astrodome. She said of the evacuees, “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” Though then-President Bush insisted that “the storm didn’t discriminate and neither will the recovery effort,” the fact is that disasters don’t affect all communities the same way.

“Even though the wind and rain draw no distinctions of race, class, or immigration status, the disasters they create often replicate and deepen social inequalities,” said disaster historian, Jacob Remes of the disparate impact Houston’s communities of color felt after Hurricane Harvey. Natural disasters reveal the ways people of color are subjected to inequitable treatment in America through continuing and historical processes of social, political, and economic disempowerment. Just as Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and people were left more exposed to natural disasters because of U.S. austerity measures, so too are communities of color on the U.S.  mainland left exposed to disasters by segregation and uneven access to resources.

Post-WWII housing policies, such as exclusionary zoning ordinances in wealthy white communities and redlining by banks and insurance companies, favored whites and subsidized their move away from cities and into suburbs — with them went all important resources. The present-day effects of segregated housing practices impacts who receives formal warning signals during a natural disaster, as well as who is capable of heeding those warnings.

Segregation and poverty can explain why many victims of natural disasters have a lack of access to fuel, water, and supplies, as well as why many simply can’t evacuate due to a lack of private transportation. Accordingly, most of those who are stranded after a natural disaster are the poor, elderly, sick, and those caring for the sick. Because of these preexisting systems of racial and social stratification, in the aftermath of natural disasters, communities of color are rendered more vulnerable. Whether a community will recover from a natural disaster is rooted in the choices a society makes and the prioritization of some lives over others.

“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” Mr. Trump joked on October 3rd before a room full of Puerto Rican officials. President Trump’s initial response to Hurricane Maria’s destruction in Puerto Rico received immediate criticism for his preoccupation with Puerto Rico’s debt.

Alarming as the President’s response may be, a 2007 study performed by researchers at Stanford and UCLA examined the effects of racial cues on the subjects’ beliefs about the appropriate source of financial assistance for victims of natural disasters. The study found that victims who were otherwise the same elicited varying levels of prescribed governmental responsibility depending on their race. Respondents were less likely to call for federal intervention on behalf of Black, Latino, and South Asian victims, and more likely to suggest private charitable relief, compared to White victims.

The study concluded that bias extends to disaster relief for non-white victim populations and that we are less willing to support extensive taxpayer-funded disaster relief depending on the race and ethnicity of the victim population. These responses to requests for federal relief reveal Americans’ reliance on the myth of meritocracy — blaming individuals for their circumstances, and ignoring structural inequalities.

In an ever-warming planet with rising seas, natural disasters represent the “new normal,” and the same communities that have been historically underserved are also those most affected. Government recovery funding should be based on unmet need and the U.S. should seek to ensure all of its people are equipped with the knowledge and resources to mitigate and recover from natural disasters.

The U.S. government’s failure to appropriately fund Puerto Rican recovery from Hurricane Maria has cost lives; two patients in an intensive care ward died in late September when the generators powering their hospital ran out of fuel, still others have died of infectious water-borne illnesses many Puerto Ricans are exposed to as they are forced, by circumstance, to drink creek water.

Our administration and the Department of Defense must expand their relief efforts in Puerto Rico — they can start not only with granting, rather than loaning Puerto Rico the funds it needs for recovery, but also by approving Category F funding for Puerto Rico to help restore the island’s power grid, renewing the Jones Act waiver on the island’s imports, and by plugging shortfalls in the island’s Medicaid funding.