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Puerto Rico: Rise of non-traditional relief

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Message Sean Bennett

Hurricane damage
Hurricane damage
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It has been more than two months since Hurricane Maria pummeled the shores of Puerto Rico, felling trees, toppling telephone lines and tearing apart homes and families in one of the island's most 'catastrophic' events in living memory . The event was not just a reminder of how much man is at the mercy of the forces of nature. For the people of Puerto Rico, it was also a reminder of something much more gruesome: just how little Washington cares about them.

Indeed, since day one, President Trump has been reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of what was happening on the island, downplaying the number of victims and saying the storm simply doesn't actually compare to a "real catastrophe " like Hurricane Katrina. Unsurprisingly, the White House's tone-deaf tweets brimming with racist dog whistles were matched by a relief effort that can only be generously deemed "lackluster".

Take for example, the fiasco involving the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) baffling decision to award a newly launched Florida company -- Bronze Star LLC -- a $30m contract to provide Puerto Rico with the much-needed emergency tarpaulins. Unable to fulfill the order, no supplies were delivered. So FEMA terminated the contract four weeks later and started the process from scratch. A botched tendering process with big consequences since four weeks is a long time when you're living in a disaster zone waiting for some semblance of shelter to be provided.

And this isn't the only area in which relief and rebuilding is being delivered at a glacial pace. Even more than two months after the event, telecommunications infrastructure is still only operating at 75% capacity, cellphone services at 65% and 1-in-10 Puerto Ricans are still lacking potable water.

That Puerto Ricans have been left to flounder without even some of their most basic needs being met is in no small part due to the labyrinthine bureaucracy endemic in US aid coordination. Jesàs Colà n Berlingeri, the major of Orocovis, one of many towns ravaged by Hurricane Maria, complained that, when officials finally showed up to help there was too many people and not enough action. Attempts to organize relief were marred by "brutal disorganization" , he said. "There should be one head and that head oversees everything. But there were actually ten heads."

This many-headed federal hydra has squandered millions of dollars and yet conferred very little tangible benefit to an increasingly desperate Puerto Rican population. This is in part attributable to the government's dispassionate attitude towards its stricken enclave.

But Hurricane Maria has brought to the fore other, more fundamental problems in Puerto Rico, such as the debt crisis , which will surely worsen as a result of these events and which now will be inextricably interwoven with the financial ramifications of this disaster. Yet the US government is clear that it will not be taking a holistic approach to the problems facing the island, with the Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney saying "We are not going to deal with the fundamental difficulties Puerto Rico had before the storm."

No wonder that fears are running high that even the derisory amount earmarked to help will be allocated in a way that helps the US recover Puerto Rican debt, rather than helps Puerto Rico recover. Some worry that the Fiscal Control Board, a body overseeing Puerto Rico's finances enacted as part of the Promesa Act , will prioritize infrastructure projects that help repay shareholders instead of helping Puerto Ricans.

In response to these fears, and the threadbare US relief efforts, grassroots projects have stepped up to the fore. For example, a group of more than 200 coders, computer scientists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who have branded themselves 'the Maria Tech Brigade ' have created a person finder database, a tool that allows people to send SMS messages online and web infrastructure to support donation and advocacy. Technology has also been used to create an Uber-style matching platform that allows well-wishers to 'Adopt a Family in PR' . Elsewhere, a group called Puerto Rico Rising , formed in the wake of Hurricane Maria, is working directly with a private shipping company willing to work for free in order to transfer 68,000 pounds of donated supplies to the island without having to negotiate the "bottleneck" of government bureaucracy.

Supplies are also arriving by air, thanks to activists. Fixed Base Operator (FBOs),Signature Flight Support, for example, installed satellite phones to assist with recovery efforts and was the launchpad for thousands of pounds of relief supplies. Operation Airdrop , a star-studded operation founded by radio personality John Clay Wolfe and supported by various Major League Baseball players, which was formed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey is also assisting, deploying a DC-8 four engine commercial jet to transport supplies to the island.

That private individuals are stepping in when it really should be up to those in public office is by no means ideal. However it is undeniable that this innovative crowdsourcing approach is reaching the places that government aid efforts aren't. Perhaps -- given the fact that there are often several emergency efforts requiring aid at any one time, -- the government should shake off its bureaucracy-laden approach and see if it can learn a thing or two from the innovators.

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I'm an expert in development economics and trade issues currently working in Washington DC.
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