Blackout in Puerto Rico
Frontline is a documentary series site created by PBS. Through investigative journalism different stories across the world are produced for citizens consume as they see fit. The series cover popular political trends and national disasters around the world. American university held an event for the journalist that created “Blackout in Puerto Rico” to provide commentary and answer questions about their work. This event is intended for an audience that wants to pursue the career and learn the craft of investigative journalism.
At the event we heard from Laura Sullivan, Rick Young, Emma Schwartz, and Adam Lingo. They were some of many involved in the film; they all had different perspectives and roles during the investigation. Four brief clips from the film were played, and the panelist interjected with commentary about the development and controversy addressed in the clip shown. Initially the journalists planned and proposed an investigation in Texas after Hurricane Harvey; However, Puerto Rico had a more compelling story, and the journalist needed to persuade their donors to switch focus. In September 16th, 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the already vulnerable island of Puerto Rico. Moreover, by the end of the event some people wanted to know more about racial discrimination and their difficulties filming the series. The event was very brief, so there was many questions left unanswered. Other than the time constraint the event was eye opening and relevant to course material.
In “The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S Racial Divide”, Chapter one, covers “The Roots of The Racial Wealth Divide”, this text describes why this storm was just as bad as previous Hurricanes like Kartina that disproportionately impacted people of color. People in Puerto Rico lost everything because of the economic state of their country and discrimination. The text states “citizenship is a government-granted status that opens the door to full membership in the society”, but through this film one can see that Puerto Ricans have the door closed. Puerto Rico is shown through drone footage and the damage is devastating. It was evident that the U.S citizens of Puerto Rico were not getting the support they needed from the U.S government.
One clip tackled the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) and the federal response towards Hurricane Maria. Sullivan sat down with Michael Byrne, FEMA’s coordinating officer, to receive answers about disaster relief attempts on the island. Byrne explained that FEMA did all they could do in conjunction with slow shipping, a lack of money, and bureaucratic delays. However, Byrne was understating the issues and was not taking accountability for a lack of preparation, economic devaluation, and discrimination.
The author described the position of Spanish speaking countries after the actions justified by the Monroe Doctrine; Spanish speaking countries were made into subjects and used for their land. The U.S then took Puerto Rico as an U.S territory, and continued to attribute American values of ownership and investment on the Puerto Ricans. The text describes the importance of assets and investments in wealth building, which is highly impacted by government policy, despite what the wealthy want to admit it. People on the island tried to invest, but they were just pons for wall street investors, and their investments in bonds were not valued the same. They were being sold a dream that their investments would give them wealth similar to white homes in the states. In Puerto Rico there is also a lack of property ownership. Before the storm Puerto Ricans did not have property records for their homes, which could be for many cultural reasons. As a result of the absense of that documentation, many people could not receive money from FEMA. Also people could not receive any returns on their investments they made, but instead owed money to banks. Many people invested in Puerto Rico in hopes of capitalistic outcomes. However, the people on the island do not practice capitalistic behaviors that would bring success the investors wanted. The wall street investors receive million dollar tax breaks in order to recover from their investments in Puerto Rico. The economic discrimination on the island can be described by this quote from the text, “there’s a circle of causation: economic interests forment prejudiced people and self-interested campaign contributors elect racist politicians; racist politicians enact discriminatory policies that further white employer's interests”.
In my public administration class, we are discussing bureaucratic models and the difficulties surrounding accountability vs. efficiency, and FEMA’s inability to serve the island is a perfect example. The lack of tarps to protect homes from water damage was a contracting issue; federal agencies usually contract out goods and services if they cannot provide it. The issues of accountability arises because the government's role in execution is not clear. Byrne explained that the proper contracting was done, and if there was a failure along the way, the deal in question was cancelled. Bronze Star was the first company contacted to send tarps to Puerto Rico for 25 million dollars; the company failed to execute. Finally, months later, a hookah company successfully delivered tarps in exchange for another multimillion dollar contract. By the time tarps reached homes on the island, they were already unsalvageable.
The United States government has a trend of lacking inter-cultural competency to address issues in their territories and states. FEMA denied funds to rebuild homes on the island, and people were left homeless. Similar to minorities in New Orleans, who did not have electronic deeds to their homes; they only had paper deeds that date back to slavery, which were washed away in the storm. Puerto Ricans have a culture that does not pride itself on legal documents that dictate ownership or knowledge of smart investments.The U.S government should be acknowledging these practices that will likely explain why other cultures do not have legal documents to claim their land. Instead these differences are used in conjunction with economic exploitation to relieve itself from responsibility.