Tuesday, November 28

Navigating Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria

TAMPA — Six years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, 64, continues to grapple with persistent challenges on the island.

In the wake of the Category 4 storm, which destroyed two-thirds of the island’s power distribution system and caused damages of about $90 billion, over 200,000 people left Puerto Rico. Many came to Central Florida, building a politically important voting bloc in the state.

Now, Pierluisi, who was elected in 2020, said a challenge will be convincing Puerto Ricans to stay or to move back to the island. Meanwhile, he said the question of whether Puerto Rico should be granted statehood remains top of mind for the population of more than 3 million.

The Times interviewed Pierluisi about these topics during a recent visit to Tampa.

Since Hurricane Maria, could you provide an update on the progress of the reconstruction?

The first thing that I did was ask the Biden administration to remove some bureaucratic hurdles and restrictions that were being imposed on Puerto Rico, not on the states, by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and Housing and Urban Development. We started seeing a better flow in terms of the reconstruction.

By the beginning of 2021, roughly 200 projects had been completed, construction projects with FEMA funding. Those involve roads and bridges at the municipal level. Right now, 2,000 projects have been completed, so it’s a big leap. We have 20,900 construction projects underway all over Puerto Rico with FEMA funds. The Highway Authority of Puerto Rico currently has 500 projects in construction with funding coming from the Federal Highway Administration. And in terms of housing, we have already rebuilt or repaired 5,600 homes impacted by Maria, and we have assisted 7,000 households or families in acquiring a home.

Our electric system is the biggest challenge we have. When I came in, (there were) zero projects on the grid or the plants, generation zero. Right now, 133 are approved by FEMA, and 72 are in construction. So it’s a turnaround.

All of the reconstruction should happen within 15 years. So it’s been six years or so since Maria, and that’s why I say that it should take us about eight more years. This is a top priority for me.

Many Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria ended up in Central Florida. How has this impacted the island in terms of its workforce and opportunities?

It had a negative impact. I know a lot of the ones who left after Maria were very upset. They didn’t like the way the government reacted to Maria. And I know that sentiment is still there. But that’s why I’m here, because I need to communicate what’s happening in Puerto Rico so that they see light at the end of the tunnel there. And they think about the possibility of returning.

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How do you see the influence of the Puerto Rican community shaping the political landscape in Florida?

I know they are important. But some of them, I’m sure, haven’t registered because it takes them a while to get used to the voting system in the U.S. I tell them that they should participate. They are our advocates: Boricuas in the States are the ones who can advocate for us and get their members of Congress to be responsive to our needs.

Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Pierluisi meets with supporters at an event hosted by the Hillsborough County Democratic Caucus of Florida at the Cuban Club on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, in Ybor City.
Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Pierluisi meets with supporters at an event hosted by the Hillsborough County Democratic Caucus of Florida at the Cuban Club on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, in Ybor City. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Immigration is a contentious topic. How do you view the political debate in the U.S.?

A nation grows when its population grows, and they come into work, and many times they work in areas in which we have a labor shortage. I’m all for comprehensive immigration reform.

What are your thoughts about Gov. (Ron) DeSantis and his immigration policies?

On immigration, I stand where I stand. I do believe that immigration should be regulated, but it should not be prohibited.

How could you define your relationship with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis?

I haven’t met Gov. DeSantis. I know Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. When I was in Congress, I worked with Rubio on a regular basis. When I got into office as governor, I received a couple of calls from Sen. Scott offering support. But with DeSantis, I haven’t talked to him.

You’ve called Puerto Rico’s statehood situation “geographic discrimination.” How should this be addressed?

The statehood movement will not expire until we reach our goal, which is being treated equally as our fellow citizens in the States. That’s what we’re going for. And we will always be Puerto Rican and speak Spanish, dance salsa and reggaetón, and eat rice, beans and mofongo. That’s not going to change. But we believe in America, and we want to participate fully in the American democracy. We want a seat at the table.

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