In Puerto Rico, Battling Coronavirus and Climate Change

By Zoey Shipley

There are five confirmed cases of coronavirus in Puerto Rico so far, but the residents of the island are taking big steps to try to prevent the further spread of the disease, such as a strictly-enforced curfew from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and the closure of ‘non-essential’ businesses like shopping malls or recreation centers. This pandemic is adding another huge strain to the already exhausted resources of the island that is struggling to recover from a series of disasters for which they have received precious little help from the federal government.

Why This Matters: Puerto Rico is now home to 3.5 million Americans and it is “one of the world’s most storm-vulnerable regions,” according to the Associated Press. Hurricane Maria was one of the ‘deadliest disasters’ in American history.  Climate change almost certainly made the impact of this historic storm worse. Then on January 7, 2020, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck the island knocking the residents to their knees again, with residents only beginning to recover — many are still sleeping outsideIt is hard to think of any place in the U.S. less able to withstand the coronavirus shock to its healthcare system and economy than Puerto Rico.  With climate change and global pandemics worsening, the same set of compound disasters could be coming to a city near you in the future.

Climate Disaster Risk Goes On

Warming waters from climate change both fuel and sustain hurricanes longer and create unprecedented amounts of rainfall on land. Climate change also risks life on the island with the continued rise of sea levels. “Nearly 8,000 structures in the island’s low-lying areas, as well as drinking water and sanitation pipelines, are said to be at risk by an increase in sea level of 1.6 feet. If that increase extends to 6.5 feet, more than 50,000 structures susceptible, resulting in approximately $11.8 billion in losses,” NBC News reported.  When Hurricane Irma hit it caused wide-spread electrical outages and a financial crisis.  In the same month, Hurricane Maria hit and caused more than 3,000 deaths, massive flooding due to record rainfall, major landslides, and other devastations.  There is no reason to think the damages of future storms won’t be worse.

Now Add The Coronavirus Pandemic

One-fifth of Puerto Rico’s population of nearly 3.2 million is 65 or older,” healthcare systems are still working to recover from Hurricane Maria and other disasters, citizens are forced to sleep outdoors in tents, and the continued threats from climate change all create a great risk for Puerto Rico during the Coronavirus pandemic. A House bill, H.R. 5687, has passed to provide further resources to Puerto Rico to address financial strains facing the island but has stalled in the Senate with threats from the White House to veto if passed. Criticism of the bill comes from the concerns of corruption of the Puerto Rico government. With cases like resources that were provided for Hurricane Maria being left unused in a warehouse and the past Puerto Rican governor being forced to resign over a political scandal.

What You Can Do: Call your Members of Congress and urge them to make sure that Puerto Rico gets its share of coronavirus stimulus funding as well as the relief it still needs to recover from prior disasters.

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