How Hurricane Maria exposed long ignored human rights concerns in Puerto Rico

Driving around San Juan, the sight of blue tarpaulins is almost inescapable. Nailed over people’s roofs, the tarps continue to provide the only shelter for tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans one year after Hurricane Maria tore through the island, causing extensive damage to homes, hospitals and schools.

It is shocking that so many people are forced to live in such a precarious situation; even worse when they are part of one of the richest nations in the world. Yet for decades, the authorities have ignored serious human rights concerns that have left marginalized communities disproportionately exposed – and certainly, ill-equipped to withstand the shocks of one of the biggest disasters to befall Puerto Rico in a century.

But for some of the activists Amnesty International spoke to, while Hurricane Maria was a disaster, it was also a reminder of the power of community.

Modesta, a community leader in Loiza, said that community leaders began to self-organise in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Together, they carried out censuses of their needs and numbered houses so that when Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) arrived, they were prepared.

It is often the case that local communities know exactly what their needs are. Yet, looking back at Puerto Rico’s recent history, they have sadly been ignored or cast aside when decisions are made that will affect their lives.  

Since at least 2016, people from all walks of life have united to demonstrate against painful austerity measures aimed at tackling a serious financial crisis arising from the island’s crippling external debt.

The authorities’ response, as documented by Amnesty International, has been to violently break up these protests, using excessive force to quash people’s right to freely express dissent.

In the meantime, deep cuts in government spending on crucial public services like healthcare and education continue.

While the response to the disaster was the largest and longest in FEMA’s history, it may have been much more effective had the authorities invested in modernising the island’s 50-year-old infrastructure and in public services. Instead the hurricane took out the archaic power grid and communications lines, which severely hindered the emergency response.

These failures must not be repeated. If the authorities have any hope of saving lives by preventing and reducing the impact of increasingly severe hurricanes on Puerto Rico, they must act now. In the context of climate change, forceful storms like Maria are unlikely to be rare.

If they are to learn from Hurricane Maria, authorities must put human rights at the heart of their policies and ensure transparency in their decision-making.

In light of the discovery of an undistributed stockpile of drinking water, the controversy over the number of deaths and the failure to ensure dignified housing, as well as the lack of consultation with the affected communities, Puerto Rican and US federal authorities must initiate an independent investigation into their response to Hurricane Maria.

But we also need to see more forward-looking responses to support the human rights of Puerto Ricans. As the island rebuilds, both the federal and Puerto Rican governments and the Fiscal Board established by the US Congress must be more transparent about their decision-making.

And just as important, instead of violently pushing back against ordinary people protesting austerity measures, as it did this May, the Puerto Rican government must commit to increased dialogue with islanders still struggling to put their life back together after a year of hardship and grief.

The responsibility falls on the Puerto Rican government especially to create more spaces to involve communities meaningfully in preparing for disasters, adapting to climate change, and effectively responding to hurricanes.

I am happy to report that before I left San Juan, I met Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, who agreed to set up a task force with Amnesty International and other local organizations to address human rights concerns such as freedom of expression and lack of transparency around fiscal spending.

It’s an important step forward, but words must be matched by actions. We will be watching.

*This article was originally published by El Nuevo Día