Opinion Lin-Manuel and Luis Miranda: How to get Puerto Rico help now
Washington Post (subscription required)
Sep 20, 2022
Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creator of “Hamilton” and “In The Heights.” His father, Luis A. Miranda Jr., is a philanthropist and political strategist.
Much of Puerto Rico is without power due to Hurricane Fiona, which slammed into the island Sunday, dumping more than two feet of rain on some locations, causing mudslides and destroying homes. The storm hit almost exactly five years to the day after Hurricane Maria brought unprecedented devastation to the archipelago in 2017.
For many Puerto Ricans, there is an understandable fear of “here we go again.” It is well known that Maria left more than $90 billion in damage, causing nearly 3,000 fatalities and the longest blackout in U.S. history. Some towns waited about 11 months to regain power. Had this kind of disaster happened on the U.S. mainland, the appalling lack of federal response in 2017 would have been unthinkable.
The road back has been long and challenging. Only about $25 billion of the nearly $80 billion authorized by Congress after Maria ever made it to the island. Emergency agencies were slow to step in. The entire federal response was summed up by Donald Trump, who came briefly to the island and casually tossed rolls of paper towels to a crowd of Guaynabo residents.
Maria was followed in quick succession by multiple earthquakes in 2019 that slowed rebuilding and, of course, the covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Five years on, the power grid is still crippled and provides unreliable electricity, stagnating the growth of businesses large and small. One thing is certain: More help is needed to support entrepreneurs and nonprofits.
But the inept federal response had a silver lining: It spawned new partnerships and creative ways of doing business. In community after community, we have seen Puerto Rico’s nonprofit organizations rise to the challenge of rebuilding the archipelago in a way that is more sustainable and more just. Our family has worked alongside the Hispanic Federation, a Latino membership organization in the United States, which has invested more than $50 million in Puerto Rico’s recovery and funded 140 nonprofit organizations.
Federally qualified health centers, which serve hundreds of thousands of mostly low-income Puerto Rican residents each year, were beacons of hope in the weeks following Maria and often became a gathering place for people to convene, charge their phones and store temperature-sensitive medicines. A number of nonprofits came together after Maria to provide solar power to 16 clinics, stabilizing services for future disasters. One of the centers is the Orocovis emergency room, located in the mountains in central Puerto Rico, which stayed up and running through Fiona when other institutions lost power.
Maria also destroyed about 80 percent of the island’s coffee trees. Coffee is central to Puerto Rico’s cultural and economic identity; it sustains many families running multigenerational, smallholder farms. So, we set out to revitalize that sector by bringing together philanthropy and businesses to help.
A coalition that included Nespresso, Starbucks and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, came together to distribute 2 million climate-resilient coffee seedlings to more than 1,100 farmers. According to a 2017 agricultural census, 67 percent of coffee farms on the island qualify as small businesses, generating less than $10,000 in sales that year. Thanks to these kinds of collaborative efforts — and the leadership of local agricultural organizations and the hard work of the coffee growers themselves — coffee production on the island today has surpassed pre-Hurricane Maria levels.
Harder to stand back up have been the island’s arts and cultural groups, which always take a beating in natural disasters — and are often the last to be resuscitated. The Flamboyan Arts Fund enabled direct support of 541 artists and 106 arts organizations, including museums, theaters, arts education programs and concert venues. The fund is behind the biggest private investment in the arts in recent history and has sustained many organizations after Maria damaged their facilities and deprived them of income in the months that followed. A typical grant went to the Museo de las Americas in San Juan, which lost electricity for more than 80 days after Maria, causing significant damage to a key exhibit about Taínos and other Indigenous groups. The grant allowed the museum to restore artifacts and reopen an immersive exhibition to the public.
All of these groups again need help now that Fiona has struck. The two storms remind us that Puerto Rico is in a state of increasing vulnerability. Solving its energy crisis, the effects of climate change and continued migration off the island are essential priorities for both the citizens of this island and the nation of which it is a part. Nonprofits can’t address these issues by themselves, but they can play a critical role in creating accessible health care, supporting the arts and innovating in agriculture to improve the lives of farmers.
We call on all our partners in philanthropy, business and the arts to join our family and make direct investments in Puerto Rico.
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