More than two months have passed since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but the inadequacy of the disaster response of both the federal and Puerto Rican governments has left millions without electricity or drinkable water as this is written. The disaster mitigation and response for Puerto Rico has proven particularly challenging because of its status as a United States (U.S.) territory. Many Americans are unaware of Puerto Rico’s complex relationship and history with the U.S. A New York Times article published six days after Hurricane Maria landed reported that 46% of those it surveyed did not know Puerto Ricans were American citizens (Dropp & Nyhan 2017). The poll also showed that 81% of those who knew that the island’s residents were citizens supported disaster aid, whereas only 44% of those who were unaware of that fact expressed support for such assistance.
This snapshot of how the American public views Puerto Rico, at a time when its residents have enjoyed U.S. citizenship for 100 years, reminded me of how African Americans were referred to as “refugees” after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. Many of those who were so described were offended by the label because it appeared to suggest that the nation was providing support to them out of pity, rather than as an innate responsibility owed to its citizens (Sterett 2011). Many observers of the situation in Puerto Rico have recently voiced similar concerns and have reiterated that the United Sates has an obligation to assist its citizens: “Indeed, Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders are U.S. citizens and expect the same federal aid and support during natural disasters as the rest of the United States” (Zorrilla 2017, p. 1801). This essay explores how the juxtaposition of popular ignorance of Puerto Ricans’ citizenship and the historical marginalization of its residents, have contributed to the slow and inadequate federal disaster response still underway as this is written (Mack 2017; Venator-Santiago 2017).
The Aftermath of Hurricanes in Puerto Rico
On September 6, 2017, only a share of Puerto Rico was in Hurricane Irma’s path. Nevertheless, the Category 5 hurricane left one million people without power on the island. Two weeks later, however, Hurricane Maria, also a Category 5 storm, struck the island directly. This time, all of Puerto Rico was left without power. Soon thereafter, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) estimated that it would take at least four months to restore power to all affected residents. Puerto Rico also faced severe financial woes before the destruction wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The island’s infrastructure, including power and healthcare, was already in crisis because of austerity measures taken to address a fiscal crisis that began in 2006. Moreover, with Puerto Rico’s economy also in decline in recent years, underemployed professionals, such as doctors and teachers, have been steadily leaving for the U.S. mainland to find employment (Melendez & Hinojosa 2017).
As I write, the Puerto Rican power grid is operating at 58% of normal capacity and 93% of the Commonwealth’s water meters have been reactivated, although it is not clear what portion of residents are actually receiving services as a result (Status.pr, 2017). Moreover, the Puerto Rican government has issued a public advisory that no water (other than bottled water) is safe for consumption unless first treated with bleach or boiled (Status.pr, 2017). The migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland due to the living conditions in Hurricane Maria’s wake is expected to accelerate and may result in an estimated 14% reduction in the island’s population in the near term, according to a new report issued by The Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Melendez and Hinojosa 2017).
Puerto Ricans Are Citizens but Not Americans?
Puerto Rico’s status as a United States commonwealth has presented significant challenges for disaster response. To understand fully the island’s situation as it works to address the damage inflicted by recent storms, one must highlight the importance of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 (also known as the Jones Act), which granted a limited form of citizenship to Puerto Rico’s residents. Although the United States acquired the island in 1898 after the Spanish American War, the decision to grant Puerto Rico’s residents citizenship arose in an effort to quell a growing independence movement and to ensure the U.S. maintained permanent control of the territory as a strategic asset (Rivera Ramos 2001). Yet this extension of citizenship did not mean that Puerto Rico would become an “incorporated” area with the eventual promise of statehood. This was also a result of a series of Supreme Court decisions in the Insular Cases that were rooted in racist ideology (most notably Plessy v Ferguson in 1896). In these decisions, the Court treated Puerto Rico’s inhabitants and those of other newly acquired U.S. territories as “alien races” and “rescued peoples” incapable of governing themselves in the Western/Anglo tradition (Mack 2017; Caban 2017). Indeed, the congressional legislators who crafted and adopted the Jones Act explicitly treated Puerto Ricans as political subordinates (Ramos 2001). Because islanders have historically been viewed as not-fully citizens, they cannot vote for the President of the United States and do not enjoy full voting representation in Congress. In short, their legal status has entrenched Puerto Ricans in a unique form of second-class citizenship.
However, today, more than 100 years after the U.S. acquired the island, and in the wake of the massive destruction wrought by two Category 5 hurricanes, Puerto Ricans are now invoking the citizenship rights they do possess to demand adequate post-disaster assistance and treatment (Ramos 2001). Puerto Ricans are arguing that as citizens, they have grounds to expect to receive disaster mitigation, response and recovery assistance from the United States proportionate to the damage the storms inflicted.
“Puerto Rico Se Levanta” (Puerto Rico Will Rise)
The inadequate response to the level of devastation wrought by two Category 5 hurricanes on the part of the U.S and Puerto Rican governments has resulted in millions of Americans living on the island without power or water more than two months after the storms struck. It is hard to imagine that such a situation would be acceptable in the states of Iowa or Nevada, for example, whose populations are smaller than that of Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, were those states to experience a similar disaster scenario (U.S. Census, 2016). Yet, because Puerto Rico is not a state, it is viewed by many Americans and United States officials with less empathy and broadly seen as less deserving of assistance. Indeed, for example, on September 30, 2017 at 4:26 AM, President Trump (@realdonaldtrump) tweeted “…Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on the Island doing a fantastic job.”
Puerto Rico’s government faces many challenges as it continues to respond to the immediate needs of its residents and plans for its recovery. It remains to be seen how Puerto Rico will rebuild, but pro-independence sentiments are growing among those who resent what they now perceive as likely continued U.S. marginalization and subjugation. In fact, some Puerto Rican analysts now darkly believe that the poor U.S. response has been deliberate so as to force a significant share of the native population to depart to allow for new development for tourists: “They want to rebuild Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans” (Clemente 2017). Given President Trump’s public and deeply misleading stance concerning post-hurricane(s) recovery efforts on the island and the poor support Puerto Rico has received as it has confronted calamitous storm damage, it is clear that U.S. citizenship has not served residents as a political buffer from continued discrimination by the United States government.
While a share of Puerto Ricans see independence as the path to addressing this scenario, the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosello, is advocating for statehood instead; arguing that such standing would have eased bureaucratic “red tape” and allowed the Puerto Rican and federal governments to respond more effectively and quickly after the storms hit than they were able to do given the realities of the island’s current legal status. Partisans of independence and statehood alike see Puerto Rico as a blank slate and the current difficult situation as an opportunity to advance their preferred alternative to the status quo. Whatever may obtain concerning this debate, however, it is clear that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and, “out of necessity to survive … most Puerto Ricans have ‘negotiated’ in practice their status. They have appropriated the category imposed on them, and they have tried to make the most of it…” for 100 years (Ramos 2001, p 189).
 On September 29, 2017, in a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers, President Trump emphasized that the difficulty in disaster relief to Puerto Rico was in part due to its location: “This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.” Puerto Rico is located in the Caribbean Sea.
Caban, P., 2017. “Puerto Ricans as Contingent Citizens: Shifting Mandated Identities and Imperial Disjunctures.” Centro Journal, 29(1), p.238.
Clemente, R. 2017, October 24. Free Speech TV. “They want Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans for a playground.” Retrieved from https://www.freespeech.org/stories/want-puerto-rico-without-puerto-ricans-playground-rosa-clemente/. [29 November 2017].
Dropp, K. and Nyhan, B. 2017, September 26. New York Times. “Nearly Half of Americans Don’t Know Puerto Ricans Are Fellow Citizens.” Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/upshot/nearly-half-of-americans-dont-know-people-in-puerto-ricoans-are-fellow-citizens.html. [26 November 2017].
Status PR. 2017. Government of Puerto Rico. Retrieved from www.status.pr. [26 November 2017].
Mack, D. 2017, October 9. Slate. “The strange case of Puerto Rico: How a series of Supreme Court decisions cemented the island’s second-class status.” Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/10/the_insular_cases_the_racist_supreme_court_decisions_that_cemented_puerto.html. [12 November 2017].
Melendez, E. and Hinojosa, J. 2017 October. “Estimates of Post-Hurricane Maria Exodus from Puerto Rico.” The Center for Puerto Rican Studies, RB2017 (1).
Ramos, E.R., 2001. Hegemony through citizenship. American Psychological Association.
Sterett, S.M., 2011. “Need and citizenship after disaster.” Natural Hazards Review, 13(3), pp.233-245.
Venator-Santiago, C.R., 2017. “A Note on the Puerto Rican De-Naturalization Exception of 1948.” Centro Journal, 29(1), p.224.
Venator-Santiago, C.R. and Melendes, E. 2017. “U.S. Citizenship in Puerto Rico: 100 Years After the Jones Act.” Centro Journal, 29(1), p.3.
Zorrilla, C.D., November 9, 2017. “The View from Puerto Rico—Hurricane Maria and Its Aftermath.” New England Journal of Medicine, (377), pp.1801-1803
Rosa Castillo Krewson is a doctoral student at the Center for Public Administration and Policy in the School of Public and International Affairs. She is a member of the Pi Alpha Alpha Global Honor Society for Public Affairs and Administration and was selected as a 2017 Founders Fellow by the American Society for Public Administration. Her research applies social equity to disasters and veterans affairs. Rosa holds a BA in Philosophy and Political Science from Boston University. She has also earned a Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate at the Georgetown University Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership.