In the wake of Hurricane Fiona, mutual aid and grassroots networks in Puerto Rico are directly assisting struggling communities with food, water, and medical supplies. Through recruiting volunteers, distributing resources, and cleaning up communities, local organizations are quickly addressing needs while the government dithers.
“We have seen that the government is incapable of addressing the immediate survival needs of vulnerable communities, those vulnerable to climate change, economically vulnerable,” said Aurora Santiago-Ortiz, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Because the government is unable to address these immediate needs for survival, folks have had to mobilize the little resources they have.”
The crisis has left hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans still without power and many without running water, creating an urgent need for immediate support that has historically been slow to come from the federal government and large nonprofits. In addition to food, drinking water, and medical supplies, many Puerto Ricans whose homes were flooded are in need of mattresses, bed frames, hygiene supplies, and solar lamps. As of Sept. 30, at least 25 people died due to Hurricane Fiona, with at least five of these deaths coming from accidents with generators or candles being used in the midst of the power outage.
After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, causing thousands of deaths and more than $90 billion worth of property destruction, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) heavily mismanaged its response to the crisis, neglecting to bring adequate supplies and leaving the island to suffer the largest blackout in U.S. history. As FEMA failed to consult Puerto Rican government officials about required necessities, then-President Donald Trump delayed and limited the waiver of the protectionist Jones Act, preventing ships from delivering aid.
Critical infrastructure needs––particularly for remote energy, communications, and water distribution systems––went unaddressed even before Maria and continue to lack requisite investment. Privatization of the electricity grid has led to skyrocketing utility bills while failing to curb power outages. The Government Accountability Office recently reported that Puerto Rico had spent less than 2% of the $28 billion meant for Hurricane Maria recovery, with several buildings still damaged from the first disaster.
“We are seeing that five years after Hurricane Maria, we still have a very poorly resourced health care system, communication system, electrical power grid system, running water system, and public school system,” said Tania Rosario-Méndez, executive director of Taller Salud, a feminist grassroots organization based in Northeast Puerto Rico “With all the federal money that came for the recovery, we would have expected to at least have half of those systems in better hands, performing better, and with enhanced capacity to respond in a potential future crisis like this, which is foreseeable because we did not change our latitude.”
The poor quality of disaster relief delivered to Puerto Rico compared to the relief provided in response to Hurricane Harvey and Irma on the mainland led many Puerto Ricans to decry their treatment as racist. The failed government response to Hurricane Maria and the increased occurrence of hurricanes worsened by climate change have made many locals turn to mutual aid organizations for support. Mutual aid efforts, generally shaped by volunteers and the recipients of services, aim to provide direct assistance to disaster victims while addressing the root causes of poverty through community organizing and advocacy.
Brigada Solidaria del Oeste (BSO), one such mutual aid organization based in San Germán, has been coordinating response efforts in collaboration with other organizations in the areas of Puerto Rico most affected by the hurricane. BSO is gathering information about families in need, co-managing a rapid-response collection center, and organizing volunteer brigades to clear roads and deliver food to elders and poor families. The organization is also about to start a cooked food distribution center.
Local nonprofit organizations are also working to address immediate needs while investing in a sustainable future for Puerto Rico. Casa Pueblo has distributed thousands of solar lamps to Puerto Ricans without power and entertained locals in its solar movie theater. Since Hurricane Maria, Casa Pueblo has spearheaded the fight for large-scale investment in solar energy in Puerto Rico to promote energy independence.
Taller Salud has opened up two community kitchens while distributing resources to flooded communities and bedridden elders. Taller Salud’s annual community census helped them identify which communities would require assistance. They also equipped a stock of food and water before the hurricane season started so they could immediately open up kitchens to the public as soon as there was a need.
“Most of my staff is hired locally, so they live in the same communities where they work, and the distance from the need to the aid is shorter,” said Rosario-Méndez. “The Puerto Rican experience is that communities of color are highly underrepresented in mainstream organizations and the government in general. So if you have a commitment to uplift communities of color that are living in poverty, grassroots organizations are the way to go.”
While many large nonprofits have issued calls for donations in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, these organizations are not always reliable partners to communities on the ground, often directing more funds to overhead costs than direct aid. Jorge Iván López-Martínez, a member of BSO, added that he has seen people take advantage of the disaster by establishing their own nonprofits and foundations, particularly wealthy foreigners benefiting from investment-related tax exemptions.
“Usually large nonprofits don’t have a direct relationship with our communities or move resources for internal work instead of addressing the people’s needs,” said López-Martínez. “We have witnessed how grassroots organizations have been assisting, since day one, many people in need without having to post or publish anything on social media nor creating fancy videos to let everyone know.”
While mutual aid organizations are doing the work, Rosario-Méndez said they will always lack the money and capacity to provide aid at the requisite scale. Colonial policies imposed by the U.S. and local mismanagement of funds have created a gap in services being filled by mutual aid networks, said Santiago-Ortiz, adding that she is concerned that the more responsibility taken off the state, the less it will do for the people. Still, she acknowledged, the best way to support Puerto Ricans is by supporting grassroots organizations distributing resources directly on the ground.
Several mutual aid organizations are taking material and monetary donations. Brigada Solidaria del Oeste is asking for water purification tablets, solar lamps, water filters, and first aid kits and monetary donations through Paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org). Casa Pueblo is taking donations on their website to continue providing solar lamps to Puerto Ricans without power. Taller Salud is also taking donations to help with recovery efforts. The diaspora-based Puerto Ricans in Action provides additional suggestions for where and how to contribute to hurricane relief.
“Grassroots organizations [like us] will not stop working to strengthen our communities and our mutual aid networks,” said López-Martínez. “Like many people on the island have stated, ‘solo el pueblo salva al pueblo’ (only the people will save the people).”