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Three months after Hurricane Maria hit, the people of Puerto Rico are still facing massive and urgent humanitarian challenges, and many will spend the holidays in the dark, according to global anti-poverty organization Oxfam. Tens of thousands of people in some neighborhoods of San Juan and in remote communities still do not have power, leaving them without a reliable source of clean water, health care, or lights to feel safe in their homes. Even in San Juan, many local businesses remain shuttered, traffic lights are out, and debris is still piled on sidewalks. The weight of this prolonged stressful time is taking a toll on people physically, and mentally – particularly the elderly and other vulnerable populations – all while health care resources are becoming even more difficult to access.
Oxfam America President Abby Maxman is in Puerto Rico today meeting with local officials, partners, and Oxfam’s staff. “Three months after Hurricane Maria, it is unacceptable that in spite of being part of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, rural areas and parts of San Juan are still without power and access to clean water or basic services,” Maxman said. “Seeing the devastation firsthand is a grim reminder of how much work still lies ahead for Puerto Rico’s recovery. Many official aid channels are still falling short as they try to address the unprecedented crisis across the island, and many communities are struggling on their own. I have been moved and energized by Oxfam’s local partners and other community leaders, who continue to work tirelessly to bring relief to their neighbors and friends.”
There has been some welcome and overdue progress in restoring services, but many are still seeing no gains. The gap between the conditions in San Juan and rural areas is growing more pronounced, as more isolated communities are still crippled without electricity and other basic resources.
Families should not still be going without basic resources like clean water and electricity three months later, when the full resources of the United States should be available and deployed. As Congress breaks for the holidays, Puerto Ricans are left in limbo. Food distributions are ending right around Christmas, and some doubt they’ll ever have their power restored.
Oxfam and our partners are calling on President Trump and Congress to fully fund the response and rebuilding effort in a way that encourages long-term financial recovery and prioritizes a locally-led response that reaches the most vulnerable people.
Maxman added, “There have not been enough resources deployed to respond to the magnitude of this crisis, but the total amount of funding is not the only measure of success. Funds must be spent in a transparent way that is guided by local Puerto Rican voices so that aid reaches the people who most urgently need support. Local people must be consulted and included in the response and recovery if we want to see a sustainable and long-term recovery that Puerto Ricans trust and feel part of.”
Oxfam and its partners are working together to reach the most vulnerable – like the elderly or families with members with special needs – with emergency supplies like butane stoves, water filters and solar lights and are making sure they are trained to use them and to know how vital clean water and sanitation are. We have also helped people know and access their rights by helping them fill out FEMA forms and replace legal documents.
Carmen Villanueva is an influential community leader in San Juan who has collaborated with Oxfam to distribute water filters. Villanueva said, “Hurricane Maria has put a spotlight on the existing poverty and exclusion that has existed in Puerto Rico. We can look at this as an opportunity to rebuild trust and make real change, allowing the communities’ voices to direct the response so our people can feel their most urgent needs are met.”
Puerto Rico needs urgent support now, and a commitment for the long-term recovery. Leaders should use this as a chance to not only meet its people’s basic needs, but also to bring sustainable positive change. Reflecting at the three month mark, the response has lacked sufficient leadership, resources, urgency and coordination, but it’s never too late to do right by the people of Puerto Rico.