Beyond the Hurricanes: The quest to grant US territories statehood

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To be or not to be a state? After the 2017 hurricanes, the question of statehood for US territories, Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands, have different perspectives.

Puerto Rico’s quest for statehood didn’t just start after Hurricane Maria slammed into the unincorporated US territory last September: it’s been ongoing since the United States took control of the Caribbean island at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Since last year’s storms, however, a lot of attention has been focused on whether or not Puerto Rico should become a state due to the incredibly slow and bureaucratic process of delivering federal aid.

But, when it comes to hurricanes and other natural disasters, would statehood make a difference in the amount of aid received by Puerto Rico and other US territories—such as the U.S. Virgin Islands?

Jeffrey Farrow, a current affairs consultant who deals primarily with Puerto Rico and other US territories, doesn’t think so.

“Puerto Rico is getting some assistance that it wouldn’t get as a state, and it’s not getting some assistance that it would get as a state, or it’s not automatically qualified in a disaster law,” says Farrow, who worked in government for 22 years, with a dozen of those years as staff director of the House of Representatives subcommittee on territories. “What the Trump administration has proposed, and the Republican Congress has approved, is making up for some of the areas where disaster law doesn’t treat Puerto Rico as well as a state. So it’s a little bit [of] apples to oranges comparisons there. Puerto Ricans have some advantages and some disadvantages.”

Puerto Rico’s long-standing economic woes

Puerto Rico’s electric company was vulnerable before 2017 hurricanes. After, the failing system was deemed too compromised to rebuild.

Disaster law, as Farrow refers to, is a framework that addresses the responsibilities of states and humanitarian agencies during disasters.

But to Farrow, there’s a bigger story here. And that’s how Puerto Rico has been treated by the United States for the past decade or so.

“Day in and day out, Puerto Rico gets a lot less from the federal government than a state gets, and because of this, Puerto Rico has been underdeveloped throughout history under the U.S. flag,” says Farrow.

According to Farrow, Puerto Rico has been in a depression for eleven out of the past 12 years, because of lack of jobs, which has led to a population decline, as more residents emigrate to find better opportunities.

He cites the example of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which is the government-run power system there. PREPA was forced to cut back on maintenance spending due to financial problems (they now have declared bankruptcy). The result? According to Vox, Puerto Rico suffered the largest power blackout in US history, and the second-largest in the world, after Hurricane Maria. Added, thousands are still without of power nine months after the storm, not to mention a suicide crisis, a housing shortage and a spike in the murder rate.

“For someone who’s worked on Puerto Rico their whole life, it’s kind of interesting because a couple of years ago, people discovered that there were problems in Puerto Rico, and the governor of Puerto Rico said, ‘we can’t pay our debts,’” says Farrow. “And since that time, there’s been a lot of media attention on Puerto Rico, but the problems really aren’t new. And it’s just been a deteriorating situation from not a great situation to begin with.”

Recovery and economy are top priorities

After Hurricane Irma and Maris, 18,500 homes were destroyed in US Virgin Islands

For the U.S. Virgin Islands, the same rules apply in regards to receiving federal aid. Because the three major islandsSt. Thomas, St. John and St. Croixresidents are considered U.S. citizens, which means they are entitled to the same rights that Americans on the mainland are entitled to, except when it comes to voting and congressional representation, according to Lisa Posey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Virgin Islands government.

In February, President Donald Trump signed an $89.3 billion supplemental disaster recovery spending bill, which includes $11 billion for Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding for the Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands governments, and $142 million in additional Medicaid funding for the Virgin Islands health care system.

“What people don’t understand is that this is a very complicated process, and it doesn’t matter what jurisdiction you’re in, whether it’s the California wildfires or Hurricane Harvey in Texas, to what we’re going through,” Posey says. “It’s a multi-step process in that FEMA comes in and gives you immediate assistance, but the long-term assistance, whatever jurisdiction you’re in, all jurisdictions, you have to apply for money from various federal agencies.”

Immediately following the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, many of the more than 100,000 American citizens living in the US Virgin Islands felt left behind; particularly, since most media coverage during the aftermath was devoted to Puerto Rico. And while 76 percent of those American citizens are Black, according the The Root, it’s easy to see why they felt this way when President Trump wasn’t able to visit on his way to Puerto Rico, especially given the state of race relations in America during his presidency.

After more than 18,500 homes and businesses were destroyed on the islands, a year later, there are signs of significant progress The U.S. Virgin Islands’ economy relies heavily on tourists, and if there’s one message Beverly Nicholson-Doty, the commissioner of tourism for the islands wants to get across, it’s that they are open for business. “The best way to help the U.S. Virgin Islands is to travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands,” she said in an email.

According to the islands’ Department of Tourism, the Cyril E. King International Airport on St. Thomas and the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix opened shortly after the storms. Currently,  more than 50 percent of accommodations across the territory are open and accepting guests.

As well, scheduled to reopen is Limetree Bay Terminals, which was once one of the largest oil refineries in the world, formerly called Hovensa, in St. Croix. The expectation is that it will create hundreds of jobs.

But, as the Washington Post points out, it took decades for islanders to make strides to break into the middle class by taking jobs in the tourist industry with average salaries doubling from $21,000 in 1990 to $40,000 in 2016. Now, after Irma and Maria, and as we enter the most active part of this year’s hurricane season, that progress could all be erased.

And with President Trump bragging about the “fantastic job” the U.S. Government did in aiding Puerto Rico after last year’s hurricanes, despite the raised death toll from 64 to almost 3,000, another look at statehood for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is well worth examining, not so much for how the US. government treats its territories after natural disasters, but how it treats them the rest of the time.

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Charles Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee with bylines in The Atlantic, Slate, Washington Post, VICE, MOJO Magazine and other publications. The story is part of the Ark Republic’s inaugural major collaborative project, the Hurricane Trifecta: One Year Later.

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