Asher Klein

Refugee Nonprofit Slams Local, US Hurricane Response in Puerto Rico

Power generation on the island is currently at 69 percent of normal, and 5 percent of utility customers still don't have water service

Housing is urgently needed for tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who lack power and a regular source of safe water nearly three months after Hurricane Maria damaged their homes, Refugees International says in a report.

The nonprofit group visited the U.S. territory in recent weeks to survey needs and review the response by local and federal officials in the aftermath of the Category 4 storm, marking the first time it has organized a mission to a U.S. jurisdiction. In a report shared with The Associated Press, the group said its team was shocked by poor coordination and logistics across the island that have caused delays in aid. It noted the island is still in emergency mode and requires more help.

"There was a failure of leadership and a failure to appreciate the magnitude of the situation and the need for extraordinary action by U.S. officials," Eric Schwartz, the group's president and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said in a phone interview. "These people are our fellow Americans. The response of the federal authorities should have been and should be much stronger than it was and much stronger than it is."

Officials with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency did not return a request for comment Sunday.

Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from the Sept. 20 storm that killed dozens of people and caused up to an estimated $95 billion in damage during a 12-hour rampage across the island with winds of up to 154 mph. Power generation is currently at 69 percent of normal, and 5 percent of utility customers still don't have water service. Nearly 600 people remain in shelters, and more than 130,000 have left for the U.S. mainland.

Those who remain behind face a lack of supplies and problems including limited access to tarps and a delayed response to requests for financial assistance, the report said.

"Compared to international disaster settings, I couldn't believe how slow the response was two months later," said Alice Thomas, climate displacement program manager for Refugees International who visited Puerto Rico.

She called for an improved strategy for delivering aid. "It has to happen now. There is still an emergency going on," she said.

The report noted that it took five days before any senior U.S. officials visited Puerto Rico after the storm, and the nonprofit called for better coordination between local and federal agencies and a more aggressive plan to find adequate housing for those displaced by the hurricane. It said many people were unable to file claims in the first few weeks because they couldn't access the internet and then had problems awaiting home inspections because phone service was so spotty.

The report comes just days after a United Nations expert on extreme poverty and human rights visited Puerto Rico to assess needs and damage, marking the first time such an envoy has visited the U.S. territory in recent history.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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