In March, the roughly 1,700 inhabitants of Culebra, a tiny island-municipality 17 miles off the main Puerto Rican island, finally had their power restored — nearly two years after Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the region. Consider it yet another example of how little Puerto Rico’s leaders care about its citizens.
Culebra’s residents were the last to be reconnected to Puerto Rico’s main power system, the island’s sole source of electricity. During the two years it took to restore its connection, Culebra had been operating off of two large generators supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Not that getting reconnected to Puerto Rico’s grid via the underwater power link is necessarily a win. As one resident told me last summer, the FEMA generators seem to have been more reliable than what the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority provides.
“Culebra is the last in line to get anything,” Heather Cooke, an American who now runs a diving shop there, says. The mainland comes first, then Vieques, a neighboring island with a bigger population, and then Culebra. All of Culebra’s power and water travel under the ocean, hitting those islands in that order.
In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Culebrans “were just sitting ducks,” waiting for information, for power, for water, for aid, sighs Cooke.
Now we are getting a better sense of why normalcy took so long to return: FEMA is disastrously behind in paying out aid relief to Puerto Rico. Only a sliver of the $91 billion in FEMA aid set aside by the feds has been delivered. Puerto Rico has received $14 billion of that money, $48 billion of which is supposed to come from emergency relief funds and another $43 billion that’s been appropriated by Congress.
Just where the $14 billion has gone is hard to follow, thanks to the corruption that plagues Puerto Rico — one of the main reasons for this summer’s protests. But it isn’t benefiting people who most need it.
In fact, the FBI is investigating a number of government officials and contractors for misusing the funds. That’s on top of gross incompetence: Last year, at least 10 trailers full of food, water and baby supplies were found rotting in the parking lot of an elections office in Puerto Rico; the rats got to them first. Thousands of now-unsafe bottles of water are sitting on a farmland in Dorado, roughly 25 miles outside of the capital, San Juan.
Many Puerto Ricans, especially those on Culebra, are becoming self-sufficient. They have to. “Living in Culebra, you have to understand you’re going to be alone in time of crisis,” 30-year-old Sharon Monell, who grew up on the island, tells me ruefully.
And when the hurricanes hit, they were alone — all of Culebra’s boats and ferries were pulled to the mainland.
Yet Culebrans’ access to food, fuel and necessities relies on two wildly inconsistent ferries that run to the mainland (and Vieques) and back again.
And that is only when they are running well at all, says Juan Garavito, the head of strategic planning for the Flamenco Beach Restoration Project.
“We are looking for ways to be sustainable without government help,” Garavito says.
After all, the government’s help clearly isn’t working. Dozens of locals told me not to rely on the ferry, warning that while passengers are supposed to show up an hour before the scheduled departure, one could be forced to wait at the docks all day, with the possibility of never boarding.
For Culebrans, that means extra resourcefulness is needed. They don’t have a local hospital (or doctors or nurses) or groceries stores (they have little markets instead), and so they make do, Monell shrugs.
A group in Culebra, Mujeres de Islas, is taking matters into its own hands. Members have begun working the land, planting crops for food and herbs for medicines. While I was there, they were building an industrial-style kitchen so that, when disaster strikes again, they can cook food for residents. As Monell put it, “We know we’re going to be left alone, so we have to find another way of working.”