The Unchanged Puerto Rican Spirit Post Hurricane Maria

The last time I went to Puerto Rico in 2011 things were noticeably different than when I went to Puerto Rico in January of 2018 as a Student Attorney in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. The changes were very apparent in the more rural areas, like in Arroyo.

One of the first things I noticed were the boarded-up windows in occupied dwellings, even in upscale buildings. We stayed in Santurce, surrounded by many of these types of dwellings. On our first night there I glanced out of my window as I was preparing for bed. I noticed that many of the windows of the multi-level building across the street appeared to be boarded up. I thought nothing of it until the next morning when I looked out of my window and saw occupants in that same building. One man was peeringIMG_0992 through his window, looking down at the street as I went about my morning routine. In my naivety, I was shocked that any amount of windows of an occupied building were boarded up. I am used to seeing a building with boarded-up windows and instantly understanding that the building is vacant. So to see a man calmly peering out of his window in a building with boarded-up windows was a sight that made me momentarily suspend my morning routine and survey what I was seeing.

It was not so much the sight of occupants in a boarded up building, it was the tranquility with which the male occupant stared out of his window, as if nothing was amiss. I wondered how long it took him to get accustomed to the sight of boarded-up occupied dwellings on the island. I wondered how long it would take me to get accustomed to that sight if I were in his situation. I wondered if this was the new normal or a temporary transitional phase. I wondered even if one gets used to drastic changes, is one still subconsciously being negatively affected by the changes? It took me about two days to get used to the sight of seeing boarded up windows. Then, I began to not even notice them anymore.

Another change that I observed were all the abandoned homes. On a #UBLawResponds humanitarian brigade, I spoke at length with a resident of Arroyo. As we walked together, she pointed to all the homes on her street that had been abandoned by families seeking a better quality of life on the mainland. Watching her repeatedly point her figure, saying “this family left, that family left,” was a lot to take in. I read about the thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing the island after Hurricane Maria, but to actually see all the homes left behind by these fleeing people was something else. I looked at these beautiful abandoned homes and imagined living in such a home and making the difficult decision to leave it because life had become unbearable.

The upbeat spirit of Puerto Rico, however, has not wavered. There is a certain carefreeness and zest that many people comment on when they visit Puerto Rico for the first time. I previously thought this attitude was the spirit of the island … but after this post-Maria trip, I now see that is the spirt of the people on the island. I have faith that the indomitable spirit of the Puerto Rican people will ultimately uplift the island from the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria and keep it thriving.

Who Pays for Government Savings? The Cost of Anti-Poverty Program Disparities

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This post is a continuation of my last installment “However, in Puerto Rico…” After reading the last installment, I hope the questions left on many of your minds are “Why did the U.S. create program disparities?” and “What do the disparities mean for Puerto Ricans?” This last post as a #UBLawResponds Student Attorney with the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic will begin to process those two questions.

In 1982, there was widespread dissatisfaction with welfare programs, which President Reagan used to support welfare program reductions to curb the rate of domestic spending. These reductions were aimed at the working poor, with the intent that the poorest individuals would be spared from the budget cuts. The largest program cuts were to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) (currently known as TANF) and the food stamp program (SNAP). Eligibility within these programs was lowered to exclude most working families, cutting AFDC participants by 250,000 families and the food stamp program by almost one million participants. Another change was the cutbacks on the Work Incentive Program by approximately 600,000 participants, which had been mandatory for AFDC recipients without children under 6. The last notable change was in deferring adjustments for inflation on all welfare programs[i]. These were the cuts that occurred in the states, were there was still a level of Congressional pushback against complete welfare destruction, but territories like Puerto Rico received even bigger cuts.

I won’t reiterate the specific programs that Puerto Rico had cut, but needless to say, it was a direct result of the 1982 campaign to reduce domestic spending and eliminate the working poor from all benefit programs. One continuing issue though are the adjustments for inflation, which the states have periodically, Puerto Rico is still not subject to. This has only aggravated the program caps, as more people become eligible, the program is unable to adjust or expand. So to answer the question “Why did the U.S. create program disparities?” The answer is money and the prioritization of reducing domestic spending over lifting individuals out of poverty and into self-sufficiency.

The second question “What do the disparities mean for Puerto Ricans?” is a bit more difficult to answer. Puerto Rico has a poverty rate of approximately 45% compared to the US rate of 14%. This rate is nearly double that of the most impoverished state in the U.S. While the factors that led to this poverty rate certainly don’t lie directly with the welfare changes, they certainly don’t help the situation, and likely led to a percentage of that number. The first installment addressed many of the welfare programs in Puerto Rico, so let’s start connecting the dots.

TANF is a program that in the states is intended to help those who are in deep poverty to live above half the poverty line. While many will argue the program has other benefits such as the ability to provide emergency support for families, the numbers that the TANF program reports are the children lifted out of deep poverty. In the US 90% of TANF recipients are single-mothers, which makes complete sense given the program intention, but in Puerto Rico 80% of TANF recipients are the disabled. This stark difference is due to the lack of SSI in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s replacement block grant serves 36,000, though an estimated 300,000-350,000 would be eligible for SSI if the program existed. What this means is that the low-income disabled individuals who are unable to access the limited block grant turn to TANF instead, and the intended beneficiaries of TANF, the children, are left without these benefits.

Today, SNAP in the states is known as program aimed at supplementing the food needs of low-income workers. SNAP has many long-term benefits such as increased health outcomes, but is touted as a program that promotes self-sufficiency by smoothing the transition from welfare to work. In the states to qualify for SNAP a family of three would need a gross monthly income of $2,184 or less, while in Puerto Rico to qualify for their block grant a family of three would need a net monthly income of $599 or less. The discrepancy between eligibility shows that the Puerto Rican program is trying to address the high number of individuals living in poverty, but with a lowered eligibility income, more families become eligible and the program is unable to address this through any other means than cutting benefits. For a family of three the monthly benefit from SNAP to NAP is close to $200. With a lower income and lower food benefit, the Puerto Rican program may provide nutrition assistance, but it will not be able to promote self-sufficiency or provide a transition from welfare to work.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has been the nation’s most successful anti-poverty program, combined with the Child Tax Credit, in 2016 8.9 million people, including 4.7 million children were lifted out of poverty, and the severity of poverty was reduced for 19.3 million people, including 7.2 million children. The EITC is designed to encourage and reward work, as the EITC grows with additional earnings until an individual reaches the maximum value, which would place them safely above the poverty line. EITC has been specifically important to single mothers returning to work. As mentioned in the first installment, the EITC is not available in Puerto Rico, and the Child Tax Credit only applies to families with more than three children. The exclusion of Puerto Rico from these programs has greatly disadvantaged low-income working Puerto Ricans and eliminated their chance of accessing a program known at lifting large numbers of people out of poverty.

All of this is to say that the U.S. cut and reformulated programs in Puerto Rico in order to save some money, but it has created a situation where the 45% of people living in poverty have minimal to no social supports to help lift them up. What makes matters worse is that the disparities are location-based, meaning that if a Puerto Rican were to move to Florida they would be eligible for all of the programs in the states. This creates a difficult question for Puerto Ricans – stay in Puerto Rico and live in poverty, or start a new life on the mainland and be given access to benefit programs people like me are eligible for as mainland U.S. citizens. Just not in Puerto Rico… where everyone is a U.S. citizen.

[i]Benenson, R., Social Welfare Under Reagan, 1984, CQ Press. http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre1984030900

Connecting with Welcoming Experts in Puerto Rico

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Group planning brunch with Professor Connolly, Professor Ortiz Garcia, UPR student Ibrahim Rodriguez and UB Student Attorneys Dave Yovanoff and Eamon Riley.

Puerto Rico was a welcoming place. Despite some concerns among those of us serving as Student Attorneys in the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic before coming, seldom did we feel uncomfortable or unwanted. After explaining our presence to experts on the islands, the most common response was to help us achieve our goal, whether by pointing us to the next house in need of supplies, or by explaining an obscure legal issue. These individual interactions coalesced to paint a broader picture of Puerto Rico, and helped me to identify areas of potential, and concern, for the islands.

One early interaction I had was with the Director of the Environmental Legal Clinic at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Law School. Once I explained to him that I was a dual degree student pursuing both a JD and an Urban Planning Master’s degree, he was able to quickly take me through changes he sees underway in Puerto Rico’s land use regulations. The Puerto Rico Planning Board serves as a centralized planning agency for the island. Currently, there are proposed changes that will weaken the role of the Planning Board, and empower individual municipalities in making land use decisions. While there are positives and negatives to both structures for land use planning, the current proposed change presents opportunity to implement innovative policy tailored to local contexts. He also informed us to major supply chain issues for local and organic farmers, and the implementation of plans as presenting potential problems.

Along with my colleague Dave, I also met with two planning professors at UPR, Luis E. Santiago Acevedo, and Maritza Barreto-Orta Ph. D. These professors focused on issues primarily associated with water.  When we explained our ideas around water and solar, they were able to confirm some of our hypothesis. They explained that water quality and delivery is a vexing issue for many on the islands. Further, they described difficulties farmers have in attaining “bonafied status” for their crops. The professors illustrated the differences between upper and lower watersheds, relative to where crops are grown, and the types of agriculture methods used. Prof. Santiago also spoke on the recent reinvestment in sugar production as a potential economic growth area.

These early meeting with expert academics from UPR provided a context sensitive understanding that we built upon with people working in the field implementing solutions. Cecilio Ortiz García, and his student Ibrahim Rodriguez, met us for a breakfast meeting on our day off. They are working to establish a platform, known as INESI, to connect sustainability projects across PR. Their goal is to build a collaborative framework to maximize the potential impact of these projects. Connecting with them allowed our team to speak at the RISE-PR videoconference to share our on the ground work with #UBLawResponds.

Finally, we were lucky to meet Tara Rodríguez Besosa, as well as two of her collaborators Luz Cruz, and Ora Wise. Their team has been, and continues, to do amazing on the ground work bringing healthy, sustainable, and local foods to Puerto Rico. Before the Hurricane, Tara was running El Departmento de Comida, a local food hub that had grown into a farm-to-table restaurant. During the Hurricane’s immediate aftermath, their team was working with Queer Kitchen Brigade to pickle and ferment local donated produce to ship to Puerto Rico. After the hurricane, Tara is returning her organization to its roots by reestablishing the food hub, and working with the Resiliency Fund develop 200 new farms in the next two years. Her emphasis on local and sustainable products and import replacement has a need for supportive legislative, on the state and local level in Puerto Rico. Her model for economic development could be replicated and altered to fit other industries to help regrow Puerto Rico’s economy.

Each expert we met helped to further assemble the complex picture of Puerto Rico’s status. Each new connection strengthened our long term relationship with the islands. Each new piece of information helped to get our perspectives to a better place for serving Puerto Rico. We have taken this information, and have made an effort to form what will be the future of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Hopefully, that clinic will allow new students in #UBLawResponds to grow as they work to serve Puerto Rico and its long term recovery.

Student Attorneys Post-service Contemplations

The University at Buffalo School of Law’s student attorneys in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic dedicated the end of their December 2018, and all of their January 2018, to preparing for and providing legal and humanitarian service to some of those in need on the Islands of Puerto Rico. Many of the students produced final blog posts, although some of them finished their work in other ways. What follows are those posts that were submitted during March and April after the closing ceremony for our formal course.

To introduce them, here are pictures of the students at work at the University at Puerto Rico Law School, and in a group debriefing and reflection session at their AirBnB after a day-long brigade. #UBLawResponds!

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A Closing Ceremony That Opened Hearts

On the first Sunday in March 2018, the ten Student Attorneys from the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic gathered with their teaching team (Kim Diana Connolly and Karla Raimundi) for a final class and closing ceremony. It was fun to be together again with the #UBLawResponds gang! We lunched, caught up, checked in on final assignments, planned for the April “Puerto Rico Day” events, and had a closing ceremony. I told all of them in that ceremony that we will remain connected for years because of the commitment they all made, demonstrated with their amazing hard work and perseverance.

At the closing ceremony, we ended our shared classroom journey.

Each of the students added a rock to a bowl filled with salt water and a piece of coral from the waters of Puerto Rico. It was meant to represent all the Islands and the people of Puerto Rico. Their rocks were meant to symbolize the heaviness of what the Islands of Puerto Rico and their people faced after Huricán Maria, and into today. After that, each student poured a few drops of water from a very small pitcher of fresh water, symbolizing the offerings (in terms of both work and caring) of each student in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Clinic. After they poured the water, each student said “Puerto Rico Se Levanta” – and the full team replied “#UBLawResponds Stands with Them.”

There were tears. There was gratitude. There was hope.

It was an honor to work alongside these students, watching them serve and seeing them demonstrate some of the commitment to Access to Justice that will make them great lawyers in the years to come!

The End of the Beginning: #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic has just commenced our journey

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For those of you who have followed this blog, you know that in January 2018, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic had an amazing service-learning adventure. After more than five weeks of classwork and preparation starting mid-December 2017 in Buffalo, these students, myself, and other UB staff were ready to travel to Puerto Rico. There we met experts, stood with law students and proficient faculty from University of Puerto Rico’s Law School, worked with other UPR experts, assisted community partners on legal brigades, and gathered on-the-ground data, stories, and experience to help draft papers and reports that we hope will inform ways forward after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

While in Puerto Rico, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys helped local lawyers file over 80 FEMA appeals and provide other legal assistance. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys raised money and purchased supplies and solar lamps for more than 800 families, delivered on multiple humanitarian brigades to strong people in distant places who have been without water, power, and other basic supplies for more than four months. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys met with local experts to plan long-term community-based research projects. You may have read about some of these adventures through Student Attorney blog posts.

What those blog posts may not have made clear, however, is the amazing fact that #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys worked from early morning to late at night (often past midnight) every day. They were fierce in their commitment to (but gentle in their delivery of) both access to justice and basic supplies. The dedication of UB’s students made my heart sing (hace latir mi corazón).

I have met with each of these amazing Student Attorneys since our return. To a person, they remain committed to ensuring that the work of this clinic will continue. You will have a chance to read their final papers and reports for this course on this website next month. But that will not be the conclusion of the overall work.

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When this formal course wraps up later this month, it will only be the end of this first chapter. In other words … it will be the end of the beginning.

The mission that the students drafted during our January class has not changed:

Because recovery goes beyond disaster relief, #UBLawResponds provides practical legal research and thoughtful pro bono service, through an ongoing collaborative effort to empower a resilient Puerto Rico.

 

El camino a la restauración va más allá de responder a los efectos de un desastre natural. La misión de la clínica legal de la Universidad del Estado de Nueva York es contribuir al proceso de empoderamiento de Puerto Rico proveyendo servicios de investigación legal gratuitos con aplicaciones prácticas en colaboración con la comunidad puertorriqueña y sus aliados. 

Stay tuned. #PRSeLevanta, #UBLawResponds stands with them.

When Some is Better Than None: FEMA Accountability after Huracán María

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What is accountability, really? We’ve all tossed the word around and heard it used. Usually one hears “accountability” and thinks of “responsibility.” According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, accountability is defined as follows: “the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”[1]

Now what does accountability have to do with Puerto Rico and Hurricane María? This concept of accountability is central to the failures we have seen in Puerto Rico since it was hit by María. The people of Puerto Rico are our brothers and sisters—they are our fellow United States citizens. As a student in the University at Buffalo School of La Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic [ hotlink], I have been looking closely at these issues since December. These people were in need of—and many are still in need of—basic life necessities, like water, shelter, electricity, and food.

Now, here is where the accountability comes in: when a natural disaster affects our country, we have government agencies in place to step up and help our citizens. The main agency responsible for coordinating relief efforts is the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is charged with establishing contracts with vendors to provide needed services: food, water, tarps, electricity. Hurricane María struck the island of Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, resulting in a humanitarian crisis. Now that we are in February 2018, it’s easier to step back and look at the efficacy of our government’s response in helping our fellow citizens. FEMA was responsible for—and should be held accountable for accountable—in securing contracts to help these people.

So, how did FEMA’s response chock up? Unfortunately, not very well, when one looks beyond “official” statistics. The three essential contracts needed immediately in Puerto Rico were all secured with small companies with no proven track record of providing such services—and then the contracts were cancelled before any progress was made. The $30 million contract to provide tarps? Cancelled. The $300 million contract to reconstruct the destroyed electrical infrastructure on the island? Cancelled. The $156 million contract to provide 30 million meals? Cancelled. 2018 is already here and no contracts have been established to replace these services.

But who is accountable for these cancellations—FEMA or the contractors that did not follow through? The accountability lays with FEMA. The agency has drawn large amounts of criticism for hiring new, start-up companies with either proven track records of not being able to fulfill large contracts or no track records at all. Regarding the meals contract, Democrat Elijah Cummings, D-Md., summed up the problem pretty well: “one of the primary reasons FEMA failed to deliver these meals is because it inexplicably awarded a contract worth approximately $156 million to deliver 30 million emergency meals to a tiny, one-person company with a history of struggling with much smaller contracts.”[2] With multiple bids, why would FEMA rely on such unestablished businesses?

And it’s not necessarily fair to fully blame the businesses who took on these contracts for not fulfilling their part of the deal. First of all, FEMA should have picked more appropriate candidates to begin with. Secondly, one has to ask, how committed was FEMA to actually making sure these vital supplies made it to Puerto Rico? According to the owner of Tribute, LLC., the company hired to provide 30 million meals, FEMA cancelled her meals contract over a dispute about providing self-heating meals. Tiffany Brown, the owner of the company claims that she informed FEMA from the beginning that the meals would not be self-heating and the heating packets would be sent along with the meals. Brown claims that she “notified FEMA in [an] Oct. 19 email that 36,000 meals were en route – with the meals packaged separately from the heating component – a FEMA official told her that was not acceptable and told her not to deliver the meals.”[3]

This statement begs the question: wouldn’t 36,000 meals with separate heating packets be better than no meals at all? Apparently FEMA didn’t think so.

The work in Puerto Rico must continue. #UBLawResponds will be joining other legal experts to continue to seek FEMA accountability. You can support our ongoing work here.

 

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accountability
[2] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fema-contractor-scapegoat-controversy-canceled-contract/story?id=52915221
[3] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fema-contractor-scapegoat-controversy-canceled-contract/story?id=52915221

The Simple Things In Life: Observations of post-Maria Puerto Rico

10_37_42Four months have passed since hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico and conditions are far less than adequate, but the people are pushing through and doing the best they can with what they’ve been given.  Private companies, organizations, and individuals have stepped up to work with their fellow Americans where the government has failed.  Most of all, the sense of community and perseverance among Puerto Ricans has been extremely touching and motivating.

As a student attorney in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law, I have observed that even in the most rehabilitated areas of San Juan, it is common to find electric poles snapped in half, transformers dangling a few feet from the ground, hundreds of feet of electric cables lining the edges of the roads, homes with tarp roofs, as well as homes with no roof at all that are still inhabited. The majority of traffic lights still do not work at all, many road and highway signs are uprooted and knocked-over, and there are periodic piles of brush and debris on the sides of roads. There are never ending remnants of the destruction Maria wrought and reminders of the abandonment of Puerto Rico.

Our #UBLawResponds law clinic has been going on what we call “humanitarian brigades” in rural towns, where we bring communities necessities such as soap, baby wipes, adult diapers, batteries, bed pads, towels, and solar lamps. So far, it has been one of the most important experiences of my life. People are struggling so hard just to survive. After Maria, thousands of people began leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland and as time has passed, thousands more people followed suit. Some abandoned houses have laundry hanging on the patio along with plants tastefully placed potted plants. Some of the most recently abandoned houses look as if the occupants disappeared mid-day.

This exodus to the mainland has led to tangential problems with serious consequences. Numerous disabled and bed-ridden people have died because their neighbors and caretakers moved to the mainland and no one remained who knew about their condition. On one brigade, we stopped at the house of a bed-ridden individual to give them a box of supplies, but he had died two days before we got there. A neighbor was caring for another elderly bed-ridden individual. When we began giving the caretaker some general supplies, she was very touched … but when we gave her a towel, she began to cry. A towel. A simple $2.88 bath towel from Walmart meant so much to this kind woman that she began to cry.

As difficult as these encounters are, I am thankful for them. I am thankful we are able to help people in significant ways. I am thankful for the reality check and perspective they provide. Most of all, I am thankful I get to see the strength, kindness, resilience, and perseverance of Puerto Ricans.

#PRSeLevanta! If you would like to support the continuing work of #UBLawResponds, please click here.