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Puerto Rico scrambles to respond to a new emergency

By Oxfam
People seeking refuge at Yauco’s Municipal Stadium line up to receive meals from World Central Kitchen. Photo: Oxfam/Lenu Rosado Estrada

A new crisis demonstrates how little the island has advanced in its struggle to rebuild since the devastating hurricanes of 2017.

Last week, three earthquakes—between 5.6 and 6.4 magnitude—rocked the island of Puerto Rico, still struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricanes Maria and Irma more than two years ago. The aftermath continues, with hundreds of ongoing tremors between 3.0 and 5.0 magnitude rumbling the ground and unsettling residents.

While most services have been restored, hundreds of thousands were left without power and water for days, nearly 5,000 people have been left homeless, and bridges and roads saw severe damage.

For many Puerto Ricans, this period echoes the moments right after the hurricane. As many community leaders and residents tell our staff and partners, this constant fear that earthquakes and tremors can happen again is destroying their emotional and mental stability; the elderly and children are affected the most.

This is a humanitarian crisis that demonstrates how little the island has advanced in its struggle to rebuild since the devastating hurricanes of 2017. And like those disasters before it, these earthquakes once again expose the unacceptably slow pace of recovery and absolutely shameful US federal government response.

Oxfam has been active in the earthquake response while also continuing our ongoing work in the overall hurricane recovery. Since the earthquakes, our staff have been actively coordinating with those on the frontlines to assess damage and give logistical and coordination support, including with local Puerto Rican partners, mayors and other municipal leaders, and communities across the island. We’re also supporting organizations with mental health support, and with tent distributions.

After Hurricane Maria, Oxfam helped to create an NGO (non-governmental organization) collaboration cluster to respond to future disasters. The cluster was activated after the earthquakes, and has been central to responding to the immediate needs of the communities in the south of the island, the area most impacted.

The recent earthquakes caused significant damage to the island’s main power plant at Costa Sur. It may be out of operation for more than a year—another major setback for an island already in desperate need of upgrades to fragile and aging infrastructure. On the island, we continue to support our local partners Casa Pueblo and Bosque Modelo in their efforts to provide solar panels and promote alternative energy models on the island. Investing in solar energy will be all the more important in the wake of this latest emergency and damage to the electrical grid.

In 2017, Oxfam provided emergency aid through distributions of water filters, solar lights, and other essential supplies. Today, our focus has shifted away from immediate humanitarian aid and into the recovery phase. We advocate to ensure hurricane recovery dollars reach those most in need, ensure the voices of the most vulnerable are heard, and that communities are included in the rebuilding process. We recently brought a delegation of prominent Puerto Rican female leaders to Washington, DC to advocate for release of long-delayed federal recovery dollars.

On the island and in Washington, we advocate to ensure that funds for disaster recovery are spent effectively and transparently to improve the resiliency of Puerto Rican communities.

Puerto Ricans have the right to rebuild their lives in a more secure and permanent way. We’ll continue to advocate for their rights and ensure their voices are heard.

Help us continue our work to support a more resilient Puerto Rico.

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