Sixteen months after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, residents like Aida Morales in the Cercadillo neighborhood of Cayey are still struggling to get reliable access to potable water, phone service and a secure home.
"We almost have no lighting in our public roads, risking accidents," said Morales. "The infrastructure in general is still very weak — many streets in our neighborhood collapsed and they're still like that."
Morales said she hopes the reports that President Donald Trump could use $2.5 billion set aside to finance reconstruction projects in the island to pay for a U.S.-Mexico border wall are "really some sort of publicity and that is not going to become a reality."
The alternative is too alarming.
"It's barbarous and another way to hit us," she said in Spanish. "What more can we take?"
Like other communities across the island, residents in Cercadillo have been working with nonprofits trying to rebuild before hurricane season starts this summer.
With the help of nonprofit organizations, they're building some homes for senior citizens who lost their houses and families have invested in water tanks, generators and other necessities in order to be better prepared in the case of another disaster.
“This kind of work continues and it's a long road,” said Morales.
More than $20 billion in federal funds has been assigned to help Puerto Rico revamp its electrical grid and home inventory, but the territory has not received most of the funds yet.
Puerto Rican officials in the U.S. and the island from both sides of the political spectrum blasted the administration over the possibility losing $2.5 billion of that allotment.
“It would be appalling for the President to take money from places like Puerto Rico that have suffered enormous catastrophes, costing thousands of American citizens' lives, in order to pay for Donald Trump’s foolish, offensive and hateful wall,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y. in a statement. “Siphoning funding from real disasters to pay for a crisis manufactured by the President is wholly unacceptable and the American people won’t fall for it.”
Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress Jenniffer González Colón, who is also the president of the Republican Party in Puerto Rico, explicitly rejected “that game with our pain and hopes” and said she “will not support the reallocation of funds, which we approved in a bipartisan effort in Congress for the recovery and reconstruction of Puerto Rico.”
"The humanitarian crisis on the southern border of the United States, identified by both President Obama and President Trump, can not be resolved by removing money approved for disaster mitigation in Puerto Rico at the expense of the poorest American citizens, treated with total inequality,” González Colón said in a statement.
On Friday, González Colón threatened to resign to her position as president of the Republican Party in Puerto Rico if Trump uses funds meant to help the island to finance the border wall.
Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rosselló said there was "no justification" for reclassifying the money.
"If anything, the conversation should be how we get more resources to rebuild those impacted areas faster,” Rosselló said via Twitter. “No wall should be funded on the pain and suffering of US citizens who have endured tragedy and loss through a natural disaster.”
For over a year, Trump and his administration have been criticized over their response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, over 200,000 Puerto Ricans left for the mainland — some temporarily — and Puerto Rico incurred about $90 billion in damages.
When Trump first visited the disaster area in Oct. 2017, he said that Puerto Rico was not a “real catastrophe" like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Months later, a study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government revealed that at least 2,975 people died in Puerto Rico from the effects of Hurricane Maria — including a lack of electricity, impassable roads and a scarcity of medications and other provisions — making it the deadliest natural disaster in the U.S. in 100 years.
Trump has not yet publicly acknowledged or mourned the victims of the catastrophe following the revised figures.
Federal government offices such as FEMA acknowledged agency failures in areas such as staffing and coordination in an after-action report, while agencies like HUD allocated historic amounts of funding for the island in the area of housing, infrastructure and energy — but most of the money has not made its way to communities in need.
Velázquez and other members of Congress, including Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., vowed to fight back against any efforts to divert relief funds for the wall.
“I wish I could say this is unbelievable, but this is sadly in keeping with Donald Trump’s disregard for Puerto Rico and for Latinos. Stealing from the recovery effort to fund the wall is beyond reprehensible. As an appropriator, I’ll do everything in my power to stop it,” said Serrano on Twitter.
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