What's standing in the way of Puerto Rico's recovery

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A flooded street is seen in the Juana Matos neighborhood of Catano, Puerto Rico, on September 19, 2022, after the passage of Hurricane Fiona. - Hurricane Fiona smashed into Puerto Rico, knocking out the US island territory's power while dumping torrential rain and wreaking catastrophic damage before making landfall in the Dominican Republic on September 19. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
A flooded street is seen in the Juana Matos neighborhood of Catano, Puerto Rico, on September 19, 2022, after the passage of Hurricane Fiona. - Hurricane Fiona smashed into Puerto Rico, knocking out the US island territory's power while dumping torrential rain and wreaking catastrophic damage before making landfall in the Dominican Republic on September 19. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

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Puerto Rico is trying to recover from Hurricane Fiona, which struck last month.

This, as it's still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island more than 5 years ago.

"In Puerto Rico, FEMA has obligated over $21 billion for public assistance projects. However, only 407 million — that's 2% — has actually been spent."

If so little rebuilding is actually taking place, are the reconstruction efforts really working?

"At some point we have to sit back and look at these cascading disasters and ask ourselves, do we need to devise another action plan for yet another disaster, or do we need to really rethink the reconstruction process from the ground up."

Today, On Point: Who and what is standing in the way of Puerto Rico's long-term recovery.


Adi Martinez-Roman, director of operations at the University of Puerto Rico’s Resiliency Law Center that focuses on community led disaster recovery and rebuilding processes and projects. (@adimar99)

Deepak Lamba-Nieves, research director at the Center for a New Economy (CNE) - a nonpartisan think tank focused on Puerto Rico’s economy. Co-author of Puerto Rico Recovery Task Force. (@deepakln)

Also Featured

Linda Backiel, the lawyer of the family of 13-year-old Jaidelíz Moreno Ventura who died in January 2020 while being transported to the hospital. The family blames the government of Puerto Rico for her death for failing to build a local hospital after it was destroyed during Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Chris Currie, director for emergency management and national preparedness issues in the Government Accountability Office.

Transcript: Highlights From The Show's Open

NEWS MONTAGE: Tonight, more than 3 million in Puerto Rico are in the dark, potentially without power for 4 to 6 months.

... It was hit very hard, a lot of destruction to homes, downed trees and power lines, as well. And now they're dealing with this: flooding in every direction.

The emergency management director saying the entire island is destroyed. Many of these homes not built to withstand any hurricane, let alone a category four. 

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. And that category four storm was Hurricane Maria. September 20th, 2017, the first category four hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in almost a century. Vieques, a small island off Puerto Rico's east coast, was leveled.

LINDA BACKIEL: All of Vieques was devastated by Maria. I mean, it was just devastating.

CHAKRABARTI: Linda Backiel is an attorney who lives in San Juan and represents a family that lives in Vieques. Hurricane Maria destroyed the Vieques hospital. The tiny island's only hospital.

Medical workers set up an emergency refuge center with tents and trailers. But to get comprehensive hospital care, people had to go to the main island via ferry or plane, a trip that could take up to 2 hours.

And it's been like that for years.

Well, on January 11th, 2020, 13-year-old Jaidelíz Moreno Ventura wasn't feeling very well. Linda Backiel is both friends with the Ventura family and their attorney.

And she says, Jaidelíz Moreno Ventura was sick enough that the family decided to make the long trip from Vieques to the hospital in San Juan.

BACKIEL:  She had had a sort of flu sort of condition. She and her brother, they were checked out by a pediatric hospital in San Juan where her older sister was attending some courses.

And, you know, they didn't find anything serious. And said, you know, check in on Monday. That was Saturday.

CHAKRABARTI: So the family took the ferry back to Vieques.

BACKIEL: She was dancing and playing on Saturday night. She went to bed. Her mother went to check on her at about 4:00 a.m., and she seemed okay.

And at around 6:00 a.m., she went into her mother's room and said she had a terrible, terrible headache. And her mother gave her some Advil, and she started to convulse.

CHAKRABARTI: Jaidelíz's mother rushed her daughter to the car, and drove to the closest medical care on Vieques, which three years after Hurricane Maria was still that temporary tent-based emergency refuge center.

BACKIEL: It had no mechanical breathing equipment. It didn't have the proper equipment to intubate pediatric clients. ... I mean, just really basic stuff. And transportation to the nearest real hospital was at least 1.5 to 2 hours away.

By the transportation arrangements they had. If there had been a helicopter and vehicle to transport her promptly to a decent hospital, she could have received at least standard care for the condition she was in.

CHAKRABARTI: But no helicopter was available, so the family tried to take Jaidelíz to San Juan by plane.

BACKIEL: They got her onto a plane. She went into cardiac and respiratory arrest. They took her out and she died. The ... family is a prominent family, well known in Vieques, a family of fishermen. It devastated the community. The entire community is an island municipality with 9,000 residents, and everybody saw their child in that casket.

CHAKRABARTI: Jaidelíz Moreno Ventura died on January 12th, 2020. She was 13 years old. The official cause of death was a brain aneurysm, but doctors are still not sure what triggered it.

BACKIEL: For at least a year, they went to her grave every day. Her sisters, her brother, her grandparents, cousins. They just went there every day.

CHAKRABARTI: Jaidelíz's family believes she would not have died if a hospital had been rebuilt on Vieques. Recall she died almost 2.5 years after Hurricane Maria hit Vieques and Puerto Rico.

So, her family are suing the Puerto Rican government. Linda Backiel, whom you're hearing from now, is representing them. And she says the family does not want money. What they want is access to comprehensive emergency care.

BACKIEL: The family want the hospital for Vieques. The family wants no more children to die from lack of medical care in Vieques. That's what they want.

CHAKRABARTI: The Puerto Rican government is currently fighting the lawsuit. And in the meantime, there is still no new hospital on Vieques. And on September 17th of this year, just last month and almost exactly five years to the day, another hurricane hit Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Fiona had less powerful winds than Maria, but just as much rain, nearly three feet of rain in some places, flooding homes and destroying many of the island's roads and bridges, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power and water.

Again. Puerto Rico's infrastructure, like the hospital on Vieques, was never fully rebuilt after Hurricane Maria. Though more than $20 billion was committed to Puerto Rico's recovery, only a fraction of that has been spent on actual recovery projects.

This program aired on October 26, 2022.


Headshot of Paige Sutherland

Paige Sutherland Producer, On Point
Paige Sutherland is a producer for On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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