Cities Helping Cities: Philadelphia Aids Still-Devastated San Juan

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney visited San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and addressed how the city has supported and will continue to support the island nation still reeling from Hurricane Maria.

Shortly after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz made pleas that there would continue to be fallout and loss of life, and criticized the Trump Administration's emergency and recovery efforts. In light of a recent study Harvard University study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that indicated loss of life was far greater than the official death toll reported (64 people), that Twitter fight is reappearing in various press reports.

The study indicated that "interruption of medical care was the primary cause of the increase in mortality rates in the months after the hurricane," leading to the deaths of an estimated 4,645, according to Huffington Post. The hurricane destroyed two-thirds of Puerto Rico's electric infrastructure.

Cruz has been in the mainland recently, giving a speech as part of Boston University (BU) commencement exercises, being honored in Minnesota, speaking in Connecticut and appearing on various broadcast networks to talk about the study, and what she believes it reveals. She criticizes the federal government's response to the hurricane as well as President Trump's lack of response to the rising death toll, but she praises government leaders and the volunteer organizations that have responded to the island and it's people, such as the city of Philadelphia.

Ominous Days May Lay Ahead

At BU, Cruz reportedly told the audience that more than 1,000 people have died and that Puerto Rican people are still dying with the storm's fallout. Most ominously, she said that more than 500,000 roofs in San Juan are still needing repair, and that the island does not have water, diesel fuel for generators or other supplies in place should another storm hit, according to the NBC affiliate in Miami providing ongoing coverage of recovery.

Cruz's concerns are being heard by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who recently traveled to San Juan as part of a newer initiative by the Open Society Foundation's to pair mayors from cities on the mainland with mayors on the island. reported that Cruz took Kenney to visit San Juan neighborhoods and after-school programs in a back drop of greenery just beginning to regrow long after saltwater destroyed the island's vegetation.

"I found it very unsettling to be there because … they’re United States citizens, we should be helping them. We’re not, we’re not,” Kenney said. “And things [like] the power grid is not back up, you know, two-thirds of the island is still at intermittent power and lights. … It’s just really a shame.”

Kenney praised Cruz and other island mayors as he criticized the Puerto Rican government -- about 80 percent of tax revenue goes to the island’s government, while the mayors struggle to do most of the recovery and emergency planning work, he said.

Water Management, Solar & Emergency Housing Support in Process

The Philadelphia Water Department is providing water-management technical support, and advising the island capital's move toward solar energy.

Because San Juan is also looking into prefabricated housing that can be stored and used during emergencies, Kenney said he would like to see how Philadelphia might fabricate tiny shelters from shipping containers.

I would love for Philadelphia to be a manufacturer of temporary or disaster housing, through the use of [former] shipping containers — [for] which the technology is there and it’s easy to build them indoors — and that can become a manufacturing hub for us,” Kenney said.

Shipping containers have been used to create tiny clinics for earthquake and hurricane-ravaged Haiti.

Standing in Actions, and Also Words

After the hurricane, more than 900 Puerto Rican families arrived in Philadelphia and supplies left the city for the island. Kenney said the city would continue to assist refugees, as more have continued to arrive, but he also questioned the role of the federal government's response:

...the federal government has the wherewithal to do better, much better than they’ve done, and they refused to do it, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that … they’re not white people.”

The city has a guide for displaced refugees hosted on its open government portal.

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