With Puerto Rico Broke, Aid Group Oxfam Picks Up Where FEMA Can't

Seth Meyers discusses the continuing crisis in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and how President Donald Trump is handling it.

(Published Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017)

Outraged over the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria, international aid organization Oxfam is preparing to divert resources from developing nations like Nigeria and send them to Puerto Rico.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis has reached a level too great to ignore as 95 percent of residents go without power or water two weeks after the historic storm, Oxfam said.

“As the situation in Puerto Rico worsens and the federal government’s response continues to falter, Oxfam has decided to step in,” the organization said.

Oxfam typically does not track humanitarian efforts in the United States and other wealthy countries, instead focusing on regions with limited resources or fractured leadership. The organization operates in more than 90 countries across the globe and current missions include Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Mexico.

When asked if the organization, which does not accept federal money, would be taking resources away from those countries to aid Puerto Rico, an American territory, an Oxfam spokesperson said “absolutely.”

“We heard what Puerto Rican officials were saying and also our own staff and their families on the ground,” Scott Paul, Oxfam humanitarian policy lead, said. “It was very, very clear this was not an ordinary disaster response in the U.S.”

Much of the island’s countryside continues to struggle for basic necessities, such as food, water and cash. On Sunday, FEMA administrator Brock Long called relief efforts the “most logistically challenging event that the United States has ever seen,” but added that “millions of meals and millions of litres of water” have been distributed to residents in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Oxfam's criticism of the federal response adds to a growing choir of frustration felt throughout the nation. Elected leaders from Capitol Hill to California have decried what many call inaction by the Trump administration.

Last week, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz tore into the White House.

"We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy," she said.

"This is what we got last night: four pallets of water, three pallets of meals and 12 pallets of infant food — which I gave them to the people of Comerio, where people are drinking off a creek," she said. "So I am done being polite. I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell."

President Donald Trump fired back, accusing Cruz of politicizing recovery efforts.

"They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort," he tweeted Saturday morning. "10,000 federal workers now on island doing a good job."

Several days prior to his twitter storm, Trump temporarily lifted, for 10 days, the Jones Act, a World War II-era provision that requires goods shipped between American ports to be transported on vessels that are built, owned and operated by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Elected officials, including several in the Philadelphia region, have called for that exemption to be extended for one full year.

“The president has the capacity to enable FEMA to spend more money and eliminate cost-sharing,” Paul said. “Puerto Rico doesn’t have the money to help.”

Trump visited Puerto Rico Tuesday for the first time since Hurricane Maria wiped out the island’s electrical grid and left all of its inhabitants in total darkness. He praised the federal government’s response and denounced critics as “politically motivated ingrates.”

"In Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus. And I'll tell you what, I think we've done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it's actually a much tougher situation,” he said.

But Oxfam, which deployed its first response team Monday ahead of the president’s visit, countered that Puerto Ricans were already vulnerable following an 11-year recession and $74 million debt. Unlike residents on the mainland, which have more money and resources readily available to them, Puerto Ricans were unable to adequately prepare for the devastation that hit on Sept. 20.

“We need the federal government’s leadership and their leadership needs to match the skill and courage our emergency response are showing,” Paul said.

Oxfam will focus on ensuring residents have access to water, sanitation and hygiene. The teams will also address food scarcity and make sure Puerto Ricans have money to purchase whatever they need.

This is not the first time the organization has stepped in to help after an American natural disaster. In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Oxfam worked closely with local civil organizations, faith-based groups and anti-poverty watchdogs.

The population in Puerto Rico, Paul said, closely mirrors the devastation that nearly wiped out New Orleans’ Ninth Ward in 2005.

On Tuesday, Trump also drew comparisons to New Orleans, highlighting Puerto Rico's relatively low death toll compared with "a real catastrophe like Katrina. "

He pledged an all-out effort to help the island but added: "Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack because we've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that's fine. We've saved a lot of lives."