A recent Supreme Court ruling may hinder Puerto Rico’s ability to recover from natural disasters such as Hurricane Fiona, which dropped close to 30 inches of rain on the island earlier this week — leaving millions without power or access to clean water.
The linchpin is Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory — not a state or independent country. That status left the door open for the U.S. Supreme Court to lay the groundwork for potential limits on federal aid to the island, both in general and during times of need.
While federal resources and volunteers are currently on the ground, experts are worried the ruling means disaster relief won’t keep up for future storms — which could hit Puerto Rico and the Caribbean as soon as next week.
It begs the question: Would Puerto Rico be better positioned to protect themselves and recover from natural disasters — becoming all too common with climate change — if it weren’t a U.S. territory?
The SCOTUS decision was about one man’s supplemental income. But it impacts an entire island — quite possibly in several ways.
The decision that came down in April actually had nothing at all to do with disaster relief. It was about Supplemental Security Income benefits — monthly payments to adults or children who meet certain disability or financial requirements. Jose Vaello-Madero, who was born in Puerto Rico and had lived in New York since 1985, stopped receiving these payments when he returned to the island in 2013.
In the case, United States v. Vaello-Madero, the court ruled 8 to 1 for that because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory — and its residents, while U.S. citizens, are exempt from federal and stateside tax penalties — the U.S. is not required to make federal benefits available to Puerto Ricans.
This ruling leaves the door open for those who wish to take legal issue with disaster aid, housing aid or Small Business Administration funding in the aftermath of Fiona, said Monica Sanders, former senior committee counsel for both the House and Senate Committees on Homeland Security.
These effects haven’t yet restricted funding for Puerto Rico. FEMA’s Stafford Act still counts Puerto Rico as a “state” — eligible for the same aid that the 50 states receive.
But this is also the first big disaster since that April decision. And with previous calls for aid, there have been those (including most Senate Republicans) who demand the U.S. give less money to Puerto Rico and other territories — presumably to spend on U.S. states.
“Some people who keep a tight watch over the budget like to bring up the amount of debt the U.S. is already in, or how many times we’re going to pay for disaster prone areas who repeatedly need funding,” said Sanders, who is also a professor in Georgetown University’s Emergency and Disaster Management program.
Pulling or restricting disaster relief is likely to come up in conversation again, especially during midterm season. “And now we have a Supreme Court decision that at least frames out an argument that they can make,” Sanders said.
Puerto Rico is at the heart of this discussion because of its recent financial troubles
Other U.S. territories, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa or Guam, may be vulnerable to similar legal action, Sanders said.
But Puerto Rico may be scrutinized specifically. In March of this year, the island formally exited its nearly seven yearlong bankruptcy period — the result of a debt crisis brought on by financial mismanagement and corruption — during which a federal board appointed by U.S. Congress oversaw the island’s finances.
Back in 2017, when Hurricane Maria devastated the nation, “There were people questioning the amount of money being sent to Puerto Rico when they were still under debt restructuring,” Sanders said. “And whether taxpayers from the U.S. mainland should be paying for that.”
With some leaders in the U.S. questioning how much to support Puerto Rico, some experts think the U.S. territory status hurts more than helps it.
“If Puerto Rico were sovereign, in one form or the other, it would be in a better position right now,” Sanders said.
Because it’s not an independent nation, Puerto Rico is left out of the biggest international relief funds
Puerto Rico’s territory status, Sanders said, leaves them in a gray area — between statehood and sovereign — that limits their authority to leverage and distribute aid, especially on the international stage.
Earlier this week, Hurricane Fiona also swept through the Dominican Republic. Because the Dominican Republic is a sovereign, independent country, the United Nations can submit an appeal calling for international aid. But Puerto Rico, as a U.S. territory, cannot receive such relief — and did not in 2017, while a flash appeal was made for nearby Dominica, which was also affected by Hurricane Maria.
But Puerto Rico becoming its own country any time soon isn’t likely — the island remains focused on statehood. In 2017, during what was admitted to be a “flawed election,” a majority of Puerto Rico’s voters were in favor of becoming the 51st state.
Would Puerto Rico be better off as the 51st state?
Hurricane Katrina, when it landed in New Orleans in 2005, “tore down the veil” of the U.S. being in control and capable of adequate disaster responses, Sanders said. Other countries do typically contribute to individual U.S. states when there is a disaster, which governors — through Public Assistance programs — have the authority to spend as they please on infrastructure.
But Pedro Pierluisi, the governor of Puerto Rico, has less power than a state’s governor would. Federal approval, or pre-approval or clearance from Puerto Rico’s fiscal oversight board (controlled by the U.S. Congress), all affect how the relief is divided, said Charles Venator-Santiago, an associate professor of Latino politics and public law at the University of Connecticut’s El Instituto. Puerto Rico is also subject to block grants, he said — a state could ask for supplemental funding, whereas the island cannot.
“If this was California, we would have just seen lots of press conferences from [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom about recovery and everything that was going to be done,” said Sanders, who was also an attorney for the Small Business Administration during Hurricane Maria. “What we have here are press conferences with the FEMA administrator speaking with the governor of Puerto Rico about what’s going to happen.”
Another factor: FEMA relief favors homeowners rather than renters when it comes to assistance programs, and the majority of people in Puerto Rico rent. With autonomy, Sanders said, Puerto Rican leadership would be able to create relief structures that better fit the needs of the island.
Government corruption complicates recovery — and the climate crisis is relentless
Whether Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, state or sovereign nation may be a moot point until longstanding government corruption and present economic failure is addressed, Venator-Santiago said.
Last month, Wanda Vazquez, Puerto Rico’s governor from 2019 to 2021, was arrested on corruption charges, including wire fraud and federal programs bribery. Corruption charges were also brought against high-ranking officials from the prior administration, who were in office during Hurricane Maria. The list of shady politicians goes on.
Financial mismanagement is what led to the island’s 2017 bankruptcy in the first place — a recession, followed by over-borrowing. In the years since, Puerto Rico’s failed trickle-down economics system, poor investment in public infrastructure and tentative spending have exacerbated inequality. Today, the island maintains a 40.5 percent poverty rate.
All told, Venator-Santiago said, any financial aid Puerto Rico receives from FEMA or other countries will be entering a broken system. “A lot of issues that are disaster-related can be fixed with money, which exists,” he said. “And I attribute a lot of that to corruption.”
Hurricanes and tropical storms won’t care about Puerto Rico’s political status
Still, Puerto Rico’s territory status, which renders funding and spending to a complicated and slow “grant by grant basis,” Venator-Santiago said, impedes its recovery in moments of need — which, in the Caribbean, may become all the more frequent.
“Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States is not going to change its climate-risk and disaster-risk level,” Sanders said.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, small islands such as those in the Caribbean are among the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming and sea level rise — putting water and food security, and infrastructure durability at high-risk.
To be sure, whether Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state or decides to move toward total independence, neither will happen in the short term — especially on the heels of two large-scale hurricanes within five years of each other.
To help the island right now, Sanders said, “We need to have attorneys and relief people on the ground who not only speak Spanish, but understand their Spanish civil lawsuit system and how real estate and property rights work, and their cultural practices.”
“We’re not throwing paper towels at people like we were five years ago, but we’re also not treating [Puerto Ricans] as if they’re fully in possession of their sovereignty and humanity as we would some other people,” Sanders said.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.