In 2017, Puerto Rico was hit hard by two major hurricanes, Irma and Maria. First came Irma, a Category 5 storm that pummeled the island, leaving a trail of destruction. Less than two weeks later came Maria, another Category 5 storm that directly hit the island in what became the worst natural disaster in the U.S. territory's history. The storm moved directly across the island, knocking out electricity and inundating towns with floodwaters and mudslides.
Maria's immediate aftermath was brutal. It included cascading failures of critical infrastructure that threatened systems that people depend on to survive: energy, transportation, communications, water, and wastewater treatment. The storm caused $90 billion in damage to the island, and Puerto Ricans were forced to live without power for 328 days — the longest blackout in U.S. history. The storm also caused an estimated 3,000 deaths, according to an independent study commissioned by former Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello (D).
Nearly four years later, communities are still trying to recover and rebuild the island's infrastructure.
Historically, Puerto Rico's ability to recover from tropical storms and other disasters has depended on the federal government's efforts to ensure that communities get the funds they need to reignite economic growth and development.
However, the Trump administration greatly slowed — and deliberately obstructed — Puerto Rico's progress in repairing and rebuilding the island's infrastructure. Thankfully, the Biden administration has reversed course by lifting Trump-era restrictions on disaster relief.
A Big Step Forward
On April 19, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) unlocked access to roughly $8 billion in federal grant mitigation funds for Puerto Rico and removed "onerous restrictions" that limited access to federal grant disaster recovery funds in Maria's wake.
President Biden should be applauded for his efforts to rectify past injustices and support the economic life of Puerto Rico through funds that can help rebuild the island's infrastructure. These disaster relief dollars are long overdue — and a big step in the right direction to recognize Puerto Ricans as first-class American citizens.
Another major step forward: the Biden administration has expressed support for Puerto Rico's statehood. But its lack of statehood means Puerto Ricans aren't considered equals or treated as such. Accordingly, Biden has announced his plans to work with Puerto Rican officials "who support each of the status options in Puerto Rico."
Top Puerto Rican officials, including Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D) and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R), a nonvoting member of the U.S. House of Representatives, say that now is the time for Puerto Rico to receive statehood. "It is time for Congress to hear us out and to allow the people from the island to get their American citizenship fulfilled and empowered," González-Colón said.
Puerto Rico's support for statehood on a national level speaks volumes — and represents significant progress in federal policy toward Puerto Rico. Simply put, they are long overdue steps toward equity and inclusion for the island territory.