Race and the Puerto Rico Response

Race and the Puerto Rico Response

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, claiming the lives of hundreds of people and destroying the livelihoods of countless others. Just one month before, Hurricane Harvey hit the state of Texas and took the lives of 88 people [1]. Despite the fact that both hurricanes caused unfathomable damage to the communities in their paths, there were significant and glaring differences in the U.S. government’s response - or lack thereof - to the storms. One major factor that can explain these differences is race.

Within six days of Hurricane Harvey 73 helicopters had been deployed over Texas by the U.S. Northern Command. In contrast, it took 21 days before more than 70 helicopters were in Puerto Rico [2]. Nine days after Harvey $141.8 million had been allocated for individual assistance by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while only $6.2 million had been approved for Puerto Rico in that same time frame [2]. Also in the nine day span after the hurricane, 4.5 million liters of water were distributed and 30,000 personnel were deployed in Texas [2]. In contrast, half of the amount of water was distributed and one-third the number of personnel were deployed in Puerto Rico in the same period. It took FEMA only 10 days to approve permanent status within Texas, but took 43 days to do so in Puerto Rico [2]. More than eight months after the hurricane, Puerto Rico is still facing major infrastructure and development issues. Nearly 900,000 people were left without power when a single tree fell on a power line in April 2018 [3]. Only a week later, the entire electrical grid collapsed once again [3]. The hurricane destroyed the only hospital in the island of Vieques, which is located east of the Puerto Rican mainland [4]. Diabetic patients report still having to fly to the main island three times a week for life-saving dialysis treatments [4]. The trip, including the treatment, takes 12 hours at the least. Moreover, the hurricane has also jeopardized funding for government programs that help patients pay the expensive airfare costs.

The contradictory nature of the federal response in Puerto Rico and Texas can be explained by a history of discrimination. Despite the fact that it is a territory of the United States and thus made up of U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans have long been treated as second-class citizens by the U.S. government. In fact, the territory has a population that is greater than that of 21 states, but its people are not fully represented in Congress and cannot vote in presidential elections [5]. According to the 2010 Census, 99% of people living on the island are Hispanic or Latino [6]. The same racial animus that brought forth the doctrine of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson brought with it the Insular Cases. These cases began with Downes v. Bidwell in 1901 in which the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution did not necessarily apply to U.S. territories [7]. The court argued that Puerto Rico and other new American territories were “inhabited by alien races,” so governing them “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible” [7]. In 1980 the court ruled in Harris v. Rosario that it was possible for the federal government to fund public programs, such as Medicare, at lower rates in territories than in states [7]. Recently, in a series of Tweets, President Donald Trump blamed the victims of the devastating hurricane by saying Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them” [8]. No such Tweet was sent to those affected in Texas.

A 2007 study performed by researchers at Stanford and UCLA found that Americans are less willing to support taxpayer-funded disaster relief when the affected population is not white [9]. Studies have repeatedly found that when participants looked at images of people in pain, neurological pain centers tended to show more activity if the person in the image was of the same race as the participant [5]. The researchers in a study conducted in 2009 concluded that “shared common membership enhances a perceiver’s empathic concerns for others” [10]. This sense of “common membership” is limited by racial disparities, and the fact that half of the population is unaware of the reality that Puerto Ricans are American citizens [5].

Some cite the distance from the continental United States as a reason for the slow response. If anything, the greater distance is justification for a speedier and stronger response to compensate. Defenses that the government was somehow unaware of the severity of the storm, or that the hurricane’s path was unpredictable are also untenable. In fact, all of the National Hurricane Center’s 17 advisories in the four days prior to the hurricane’s landfall projected that the storm would directly hit Puerto Rico [5].

A history of subjugation and imperialism, culminating in the current administration’s hostility towards Puerto Rican interests, has resulted in a grossly inadequate response to the suffering of our fellow Americans. The people of Puerto Rico deserve better.


  1. Afiune, Julia. “State Says Harvey’s Death Toll has Reached 88.” Texas Tribune, 13 Oct 2017. https://www.texastribune.org/2017/10/13/harveys-death-toll-reaches-93-people/

  2. Vinik, Danny. “How Trump Favored Texas over Puerto Rico.” Politico, 27 March 2018. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/03/27/donald-trump-fema-hurricane-maria-response-480557

  3. Sanches, Ray and Santiago, Leyla. “Most of Puerto Rico Still Without Power.” CNN, 18 April 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/18/us/puerto-rico-mass-power-outage/index.html

  4. Rodrigue Heredita, Carmen. “Months After Maria, Puerto Ricans Patients Must Travel 12 Hours for Dialysis.” CNN, 18 April 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/18/health/puerto-rico-vieques-dialysis-partner/index.html  

  5. Lopez, German. “The Research on Race That Could Explain Trump’s Slow Response to Puerto Rico.” Vox, 3 October 2017. https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/10/3/16390230/puerto-rico-trump-racism

  6. “Race and Hispanic or Latino Origin: 2010.” US Census Bureau Fact Finder. https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml

  7. Mack, Doug. “The Strange Case of Puerto Rico.” Slate, 9 October 2017. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/10/the_insular_cases_the_racist_supreme_court_decisions_that_cemented_puerto.html

  8. http://time.com/4963903/donald-trump-puerto-rican-leaders-want-everything-to-be-done-for-them/

  9. http://www.chicagotribune.com/sns-is-racial-bias-driving-trumps-neglect-of-puerto-rico-85662-20171018-story.html

  10. http://www.jneurosci.org/content/29/26/8525

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