Hurricane Maria Relief Response Still On-Going for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

It has been more than two months since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands when it landed as a Category 4 storm. The disaster has so far resulted in at least 52 fatalities on the islands and the damage total has been estimated to be in the tens of billions. In response, FEMA has deployed more than 15,000 federal civilian personnel and military service members to conduct disaster relief operations. The states are also stepping up to provide assistance with 34 responding to requests for mutual aid in Puerto Rico and 22 supporting requests for mutual aid in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Despite the continuing response efforts, the islands combined 3.5 million people are still facing challenges to regain basic services.

One of the chief on-going concerns is the restoration of the islands’ power grids. According to the Department of Energy’s latest report, 57 percent of Puerto Rico’s customers and 67.2 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands still remain without electricity and the efforts to restore power are expected to last several more months. According to the Rhodium Group, the disruption has resulted in the largest blackout in American history.

Another critical concern for both islands is the access to drinking water. It is currently estimated that 17 percent of Puerto Rican water customers still do not have access to potable water. This has resulted in a growing worry about the outbreak of leptospirosis, a bacterial disease carried in contaminated water, which has already contributed to the storm’s death toll. In response, FEMA has to-date provided over 25.6 million liters of bottled and bulk water to both islands as services are being restored.

On a positive note, Congress recently approved an appropriation bill that includes up to $36.5 billion in funding provisions for Hurricane Maria relief and as well as the other recent disasters resulting from Hurricane Harvey and Irma. The states responding to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island mutual aid requests are also making remarkable contributions to the relief efforts. The state of New York so far has dispatched work teams to help restore the island’s power grids, sent medical teams and supplies to provide direct care, contributed $1 million to fund the installation of water filtration systems, and bolstered the islands’ supply of food, water and other emergency provisions. The states of Vermont and Maryland are among those that provided National Guard crews to assist with the relief response, including search and rescue operations.

Despite the multitude of resources already provided, the damage assessment of the storm is still in progress and further funding is likely needed in order bring both islands back to some sense of normalcy.