Amatul-Wadud: Rep. Neal’s follow through on Puerto Rican relief is lacking

(Springfield, MA -Apr 27, 2018) This week’s visit of Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz of San Juan, Puerto Rico to western Massachusetts is a reminder of the urgent need to prioritize the rebuilding of the devastated island. Invited by Holyoke City Councilor Jossie Valentin and sponsored by Mt. Holyoke College, Mayor Cruz, has described to the public the continued absence of electricity throughout much of Puerto Rico. Along with the recent island-wide blackout, it is clear that Congress has to commit to rebuilding the island’s beleaguered infrastructure and modernizing its electrical grid.

In January, when Rep. Neal traveled to Puerto Rico to inspect disaster recovery efforts following the September 2017 damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, he praised the efforts of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”). But last week, Rep. Neal failed to join four other Democratic ranking minority members in signing a letter to FEMA requesting that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers be allowed to extend their mission assignment to restore power beyond the current termination date of May 18, 2018.

The Puerto Rican community is an important and vibrant part of our congressional district. In fact, Holyoke ranks first among the top 25 U.S. communities with the highest percentages of Puerto Ricans as a percent of total population. Springfield ranks fourth among the top 25 US communities with the highest populations of Puerto Ricans, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. As the Boston Globe reported in March (Invisible in any language: Mass. Latinos face intense inequality), “Puerto Ricans, the largest group of Latinos in the state, struggle more than most, with fewer of them working or in school than among other Latino sub-populations.” The newspaper noted that Puerto Rican and Latino residents fare worse in Massachusetts than any other state on median income, home ownership, and other indicators, when compared to white households. 

While our Puerto Rican friends and neighbors may be invisible to many, they are not invisible to me. I see, hear and serve the community in my personal relationships and my work as an attorney. I know that many are distressed about what is happening on the island. The devastation has impacted not only the lives of their families there, but their own lives here as well.  Many from Puerto Rico evacuated the island to western Massachusetts, where family members were able to receive them. We have felt the effect of the island’s neglect locally in our schools, hospitals, social services, and housing.

These hurricanes do not define our Puerto Rican communities, instead they have had the effect of illustrating vast inequities in how the community is treated and the desperate need to correct them. As a congressperson, Rep. Neal should have been proactive in using his accumulated seniority to sign the letter to FEMA Administrator Long. Taking such steps is how an elected representative fights for their constituents. 

We need to revisit how our emergency management programs are delivered and funded. The Stafford Act of 1988, which defines how federal disasters are declared and how funds are allocated, should be reformed so that funds can be utilized before a predicted disaster strikes. We need not wait for the destruction to arrive before we can do something about it.

It has been nearly eight months since Hurricanes Maria and Irma. We must take action to better prevent and recover from catastrophes like these. Doing so requires compassionate leadership across the country committed to building strong infrastructure. Mayor Cruz’s concerns for Puerto Rico are our concerns. I applaud Mayor Cruz’s fierce advocacy on behalf of the residents of San Juan and on behalf of Puerto Ricans everywhere.