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April 12, 2019

A 'wreck of rust and mold': Why one Puerto Rican hospital remains shuttered, 18 months after Hurricane Maria

Daily Briefing

    Nearly 18 months after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, a hospital on the nearby island of Vieques remains closed, forcing patients to travel to the main island to deliver babies and receive specialist care, the New York Times' Patricia Mazzei reports.

    When a disaster occurs, the whole hospital is our patient

    Hurricane Maria, a powerful Category 4 storm, tore through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, with 140 mph winds. The storm knocked out electricity across Puerto Rico and affected the water supply for nearly half of its residents. As of August 2018, the commonwealth's official mortality count for Hurricane Maria was 2,975.

    Shuttered hospital

    As the rest of Puerto Rico continues its recovery, Vieques residents still lack a main hospital as officials grapple over the cost and scope of a repair project. The old hospital, Mazzei writes, is "a shuttered wreck of rust and mold, home to the occasional rooster and a band of wild horses whose droppings litter the empty parking lot and ambulance bay."

    In place of a hospital, local officials converted an old storm shelter into a temporary clinic. The clinic has performed a few emergency births, but without an official labor and delivery room, most expectant mothers—and others needing specialist services—must travel to the big island for care.

    For more than a year after the storm, dialysis patients had to travel to the main island for treatment, and Mazzei reports that several patients died.

    Edwin Alvarado Cordero, a 58-year-old diabetic, said that three times per week he had to travel from Vieques to Humacao for his dialysis treatment, and the trip lasted all day, beginning at 4 a.m. and ending at 5:30 p.m. On one ferry trip to the big island, Alvarado Cordero suffered a heart attack, and he ultimately had to undergo open-heart surgery.

    Vieques has since opened makeshift mobile units where Alvarado Cordero can go for his treatments, but he still travels to San Juan to meet with a cardiologist, as specialists make infrequent trips to the small island.

    What Congress is doing

    Puerto Rican officials have argued the Vieques hospital repairs and thousands of other projects have been delayed because the White House and Congress have failed to pass comprehensive disaster relief legislation.

    According to the federal Office of Management and Budget, FEMA and other agencies have disbursed about $11.2 billion in aid to Puerto Rico since the hurricane hit. Puerto Rico has used most of the funding for emergency work, including debris removal, home repairs, and power restoration.

    According to the Times, the Trump administration has questioned whether Puerto Rico can properly oversee the funding, citing in particular an incident in which Puerto Rican officials awarded a $300 million contract to a two-man company based in Montana. After that contract, Puerto Rico agreed to additional oversight and created a recovery agency.

    The Times reports an additional $41 billion has been allocated to the commonwealth, but no decisions have been made for distribution.

    Jenniffer González-Colón, who represents Puerto Rico as a non-voting resident commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives, said, "People get frustrated that all the money has been there—you can smell it, you can touch it—but you can't grab it."

    Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has accused the White House of unequal treatment. "Puerto Rico is getting much fewer and much lower resources than any comparable jurisdiction in the United States," Rosselló said. He noted that for every long-term rebuilding project launched in the commonwealth since Hurricane Maria, there were 28 underway in Texas following Hurricane Harvey, and 32 in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

    Rosselló and other Puerto Rican officials have been urging Congress to pass and President Trump to sign disaster relief legislation that, according to the Times, would be a first step in allocating funding for projects such as the Vieques hospital.

    However, lawmakers last week failed to pass the measure due to funding conflicts (Mazzei, New York Times, 4/7).

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