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WASHINGTON, DC, Dec. 18, 2017 – Almost three months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the citizens of the U.S. territory continue to face enormous challenges in accessing electricity, potable water, and federal assistance in repairing or rebuilding their homes. In response to this crisis, Refugees International (RI), a wholly independent, non-partisan advocacy group, conducted its first-ever mission within the United States to investigate the humanitarian emergency – an action the organization heretofore has only executed overseas. Completing its mission in late November 2017, RI today released its assessment of the Puerto Rico crisis in the report, “Keeping Faith with our Fellow Americans: Meeting the Urgent Needs of Hurricane Maria Survivors in Puerto Rico.”
“It has been almost three months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and many survivors with whom we met – including people who are elderly and in poor health – still don’t have a roof over their heads and are literally and figuratively in the dark,” said RI President Eric Schwartz, who traveled to the island as part of an RI investigative team in late November. “The initial response suffered gravely from a failure of leadership at the federal level made worse by an overall failure to respond with either the resources or the urgency that the situation demanded. As the emergency continues, it is not too late for the U.S. government to strengthen efforts to address the plight of our fellow Americans who have suffered – and continue to suffer – so severely in Puerto Rico.”
In light of RI’s experience in disaster response and prevention around the world, a major goal of the mission was to identify how international best practices for disaster response could be brought to bear in Puerto Rico and in similar situations.
“Frankly, we were surprised by the poor coordination and logistics on the ground – by FEMA and the Puerto Rican government – which seriously undermined the effectiveness of the aid delivery process,” said Alice Thomas, lead researcher for the RI report. “The United States, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has aggressively promoted enhanced coordination in international responses to disasters, and it is a shame that the United States didn’t practice at home what we have been preaching abroad.”
The RI report notes that Maria survivors are facing enormous challenges in navigating FEMA’s overly bureaucratic and opaque assistance process, and it urges FEMA and Puerto Rican authorities to adopt vastly improved coordination and management systems to ensure that aid is targeted at the most vulnerable households. The report calls on FEMA and the Puerto Rican government to transform information management by implementing a public information campaign to effectively share easy-to-understand information on response and recovery assistance.
Finally, the report stresses the importance of reducing the risk of future disasters in the rebuilding process and the need for generous support from the Congress to promote such efforts.
“It is critical that response and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico include measures to build back safer and build the island’s resilience to future disasters,” said Thomas, RI’s Climate Displacement Program Manager. “Puerto Rico and the other major disasters we have faced across the nation in 2017 should serve as a wake-up call. Our leaders must work to make our communities – including our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico – more resilient and better prepared in the face of these intensifying disasters.”
Refugees International (RI) advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people and promotes solutions to displacement crises. We are an independent organization, and do not accept any government or UN funding. For more information, visit www.refugeesinternational.org.