Martín Echenique is an editorial fellow at CityLab, formerly at CityLab Latino. His work has been featured by The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Clarín, Univision, El Espectador, La Tercera, El Nuevo Herald, and other outlets.
In Ponce, Puerto Rico, 92 percent of urbanized areas have electricity, but not a single rural neighborhood does.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Immediately after the hurricane, María Meléndez did not stop. She worked for almost a hundred days in a row, taking daily breaks for only three or four hours. She saw her 94-year-old mother only once in three months. One of her daughters still does not have electricity or water in Guaynabo, and the other one must go up 24 floors, every day, to get to her house because the electricity has not yet arrived at her condo.
"The biggest challenge is for my people to recover as soon as possible. It is giving them the energy, the strength, to believe that we are going to solve their problems," she said in an interview with CityLab Latino in Washington, D.C. where she received—on behalf of the island's 78 mayors—the Antonio Villaraigosa Award from Latino Leaders Network, one of the largest Latino organizations in the United States.
Elected in 2009 with 40.9 percent of the votes, Meléndez became the first woman to reach the city hall of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city with 166,000 inhabitants. Today, her municipality is a reflection of the inequalities left by hurricane María’s destruction: 92 percent of Ponce’s urbanized areas have electricity, while no rural neighborhood has yet recovered electricity. "I'm still with the Cuerpo de Ingenieros (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers) recovering and cleaning debris,” she said. “Here [in the continental US], you get a blackout for five hours and it’s chaos… In Puerto Rico we’ve had it for four months.” Below are the highlights from our conversation.
Do you think the response from the federal government and FEMA has improved or worsened in these months after the hurricane?
Everything has been slow. The disbursement of the money has been slow. That is what we are demanding, that the disbursement should be faster. Now we are given the opportunity of a community disaster loan, but we are told that after we present all the financial documentation, it will take months to arrive. Maybe a year. Also, Puerto Rico has been suffering from a fiscal crisis for a long, long time, and we have been assigned a fiscal supervision board that wants to control everything. That is impossible, it is just impossible. For that, a government was chosen; for that, people voted and chose their government. The elected officials come to serve and solve problems. And I came here to find solutions, I came here to look for resources because certainly here, in Washington, D.C., is where the opportunities are, and we must take advantage of them in that aspect.
If there were another hurricane like Maria this year, would the island be better prepared?
We could be more prepared, but still not recovered. How is it possible that after four months there are still communities that do not have electricity? I'll give you an easy example: My city, Ponce, is the second largest in territorial extension [116 square miles]. It has 19 rural neighborhoods and 12 urban neighborhoods. The urban ones have 92 percent of energy, the rural ones do not have energy. We have seen in the plans that there are communities that will have electricity in 30 more weeks. And the hurricane season begins on June 1. So we can be prepared, but the city and the island aren’t rebuilt, and FEMA says it's going to take three to five years.
Today, almost 90 percent of Puerto Ricans depend on their car, and the island in general cannot live without gas. Do you think that the path of reconstruction will lead to a more sustainable Puerto Rico? Will Ponce be a more sustainable place after Maria?
I've been looking at options, we've been talking along with other government officials. And the governor already understands that he must modernize the systems. There is solar energy, water, wind, and yes, we are going to modernize those systems. It is important.
More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island for the continental United States and are evaluating whether or not to return to Puerto Rico. What is the biggest problem that this exodus generates for the cities and municipalities of the island? Does Puerto Rico have to make an effort to stop this situation?
I think it creates social problems that we haven’t touched on. People who leave their family, who leave their homes, who leave their culture and come to a place without knowing, then there must be information. There has to be some way for the government to take them and tell them: 'Here are opportunities, here are areas where you can live, what are the credentials you have, if you have studies or not.’
What has been your biggest challenge as mayor after the hurricane?
The biggest challenge is for my people to recover as soon as possible. It is to give you the energy, the strength, to believe that we are going to solve your problems. That's why I'm here. I’ll tell you a story. There is a 75-year old man. He remodeled his house a year ago and spent 30,000 or 35,000 dollars. At six in the morning, his son called him and said, 'Dad, cross the street because the hurricane is stronger. Get out of there.’ Five minutes after he crossed that street, his house disappeared. He lost his money, he lost his home, he has been in the hospital. Tell me, how isn’t that heartbreaking? It is a challenge. It is a challenge to try and satisfy their needs again. It's a challenge for me, but my commitment, first of all, is to serve my people.
A version of this post originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.