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As many others have already pointed out, there was a startling misplacement of attention on Monday. Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral received wall-to-wall, largely uninterrupted coverage across cable news, almost as if a disaster wasn’t happening here at home.
It was, and it still is.
In case anyone needs reminding, Puerto Rico is part of the United States. So it was frustrating to see so much news coverage focused on the pomp and circumstance of a British funeral (even for a highly respected figure who reigned for a remarkable 70 years) while part of the U.S. was basically drowning. The coverage frankly seemed to amount to, “Breaking: Queen still dead” when it should have been more like, “Breaking: Puerto Ricans try to stay alive without power.”
Hurricane Fiona caused significant flooding on the island this week, and as of Wednesday morning, more than a million Puerto Rican homes and businesses were still without power. It has been a cruel echo five years after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory, killing approximately 3,000 people and leaving many residents without power for months.
The mismatch in attention paid to a state funeral and a state of emergency, at least initially, is unfortunately not a new problem of priorities. Rather, is it part of a much longer trend of the American people and government failing to dedicate sustained focus to helping our fellow U.S. citizens.
Plenty of people probably remember the video of former President Donald Trump tossing paper towels to people in October of 2017 following Hurricane Maria. Too often, we focus on these viral moments, and not the sustained effort it takes to keep the lights on in between them. That needs to change.
The ongoing efforts to strengthen Puerto Rico’s powergrid is a muddled mess of bureaucracy, international energy companies, billions of dollars in federal investment that frankly doesn’t seem to have done its job yet, and a history marked with mismanagement and corruption. There is more we don’t know than do know about the many challenges of power delivery on the island and how to fix it. But we do know that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said in June that things were improving. The reality just months later in the wake of Hurricane Fiona doesn’t lend much credence to that previous assessment.
“We had a horrible experience in the aftermath of Maria,” San Juan attorney Ramon Luis Nieves told Reuters this week. “They promised it would be better. It hasn’t.”
It’s not enough to throw money at Puerto Rico’s power grid, though surely more federal resources are needed to strengthen infrastructure there. What is needed is the followthrough to make sure that money is actually achieving this aim.
Federal officials, including Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, are already starting to point fingers. Instead, those in power, particularly officials in the Biden administration, should look for ways that they can act to ensure that results follow the resources.
The people of Puerto Rico are again suffering despite significant federal investments. To us, that points to a failure of oversight in terms of making sure officials and institutions are being good stewards of these resources in order to create a more durable power grid.
Clearly more attention must be paid from the Biden administration, and from all Americans, to help Puerto Rico avert disaster ahead of time rather than scrambling with assistance after the fact. If we can muster the attention and emotion to care about a departed monarch from a country that once ruled over us, we can surely do the same for the people of Puerto Rico here in our own country.