Citing 'Inadequate' Response From US Government, Oxfam Will Step in to Aid Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican residents collect water from a stream. Image via Getty.
Puerto Rican residents collect water from a stream. Image via Getty.

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria, as Donald Trump heads to a devastated Puerto Rico whose residents he claimed “want everything to be done for them,” there is still very little cell phone service, only 5 percent of the electrical grid is back up, roads and bridges are destroyed, and over half the island lacks running water. When the Defense Department belatedly sent Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan to head up relief efforts, he called the damage “the worst I’ve ever seen,” describing it as “like an atomic bomb went off.” The situation facing the US Virgin Islands is disastrously similar.

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Oxfam America, a global anti-poverty organization, has taken the unusual step of getting involved in a disaster being managed by a wealthy first-world nation, something they don’t normally do.

“Oxfam has monitored the response in Puerto Rico closely, and we are outraged at the slow and inadequate response the US government has mounted in Puerto Rico,” Oxfam America president Abby Maxman said in a statement on Tuesday. “Clean water, food, fuel, electricity, and health care are in desperately short supply and quickly dwindling, and we’re hearing excuses and criticism from the administration instead of a cohesive and compassionate response.”

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Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s senior humanitarian policy advisor, spoke to Jezebel about the organization’s decision to dive in.

“In the United States, as in most wealthy and frankly even middle-income countries, we assume that the government will lead in any disaster response, and that civil society will work together with the government and fill the gaps and hold the government accountable,” Paul said.

“And in a country like the United States which has incredible resources and a really great infrastructure for disaster response, our presumption is that we won’t need to respond. So as we watched this unfold, we were hearing more Puerto Ricans saying that things weren’t being dealt with, heard from our own staff who had families who were telling them that the response was really pitiful, and on that basis we decided to launch a response.”

For a successful disaster response, Paul noted, “there are two basic elements: you need technical expertise and you need political leadership.” The latter, he said, just wasn’t there. (Indeed.)

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The organization launched their first assessment mission this week, and plans to focus relief efforts on the most vulnerable people affected, which “typically tends to be women and children.” For now, their operations are solely focused on Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, Trump has doubled down on his astounding response to the crisis in Puerto Rico. “On a local level, they have to give us more help,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

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“I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done, and people are looking at that,” the president congratulated himself.

“And in Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus. And I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it’s actually a much tougher situation. But now the roads are cleared, communications is starting to come back. We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks.”

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.

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DISCUSSION

Not only is this an embarrassment for US, this is a huge drain on resources earmarked for countries that genuinely can’t respond because they don’t have the infrastructure, skills or leadership. I work for Oxfam, based in a developing country, and although everyone agrees we must step in, the mood is one of collective shock and anger. This will effect our responses globally, and given that US aid to countries in the South is already being threatened by this administration, it’s absolutely galling. The man wanting to disrupt aid (and I’m talking specifically humanitarian response not just long-term development where his influence is more nefarious and insidious) is now having his fuck up cleaned up by aid agencies. In this context where there is no shortage of disasters, it beggars belief.