Opinion | Lin-Manuel, Luis Miranda: How to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona
For many Puerto Ricans, there is an understandable “here we go again” fear. Maria is known to have left more than $90 billion in damage, causing nearly 3,000 deaths and the longest power outage in US history. Some cities waited about 11 months to regain power. Had this type of disaster happened on the US mainland, the appalling lack of federal response in 2017 would have been unthinkable.
The way back was long and challenging. Only about $25 billion of the nearly $80 billion approved by Congress after Maria ever made it to the island. Emergency authorities were slow to step in. The entire federal response was summed up by Donald Trump, who came briefly to the island and casually tossed rolls of paper towels to a crowd of Guaynabo residents.
Maria was followed in quick succession by earthquakes in 2019, slowing recovery, and of course the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Five years later, the power grid is still paralyzed and delivering unreliable power, stalling growth for both large and small businesses. One thing is certain: more help is needed to support entrepreneurs and nonprofits.
But the federal government’s clumsy response had a silver lining: it spawned new partnerships and creative ways of doing business. In community after community, we have seen Puerto Rico’s nonprofit organizations rise to the challenge of rebuilding the archipelago in a more sustainable and equitable way. Our family has worked with the Hispanic Federation, a Latino affiliate in the United States that has invested more than $50 million in Puerto Rico’s recovery and funded 140 nonprofit organizations.
Federally recognized health centers, which serve hundreds of thousands of mostly low-income Puerto Rico residents each year, were beacons of hope in the weeks after Maria, often becoming a gathering place for people to meet, charge their phones and store temperature-sensitive medication. A number of non-profit organizations have joined forces after Maria to provide solar power to 16 clinics and stabilize supplies for future disasters. One of the centers is the Orocovis emergency room in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, which Fiona kept operational when other facilities lost power.
Maria also destroyed about 80 percent of the island’s coffee trees. Coffee is central to Puerto Rico’s cultural and economic identity; it feeds many families running multi-generational smallholder farms. So we set out to revitalize this sector by bringing philanthropy and business together to help.
A coalition that included Nespresso, Starbucks and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, came together to distribute 2 million climate-resilient coffee seedlings to more than 1,100 farmers. According to a 2017 agricultural census, 67 percent of coffee farms on the island are considered small businesses, generating less than $10,000 in revenue that year. Thanks to this kind of collaboration – and the leadership of local farming organizations and the hard work of the coffee farmers themselves – Coffee production on the island today surpassed pre-Hurricane Maria levels.
Harder to get back up have been the island’s arts and culture groups, which are always beaten by natural disasters – and are often the last to be revived. The Flamboyan Arts Fund enabled direct support to 541 artists and 106 arts organizations, including museums, theaters, arts education programs and concert venues. The fund is behind the largest private investment in the arts in recent history and has supported many organizations after Maria damaged their facilities and deprived them of revenue in the months that followed. A typical grant went to the Museo de las Americas in San Juan, which went without power for more than 80 days after Maria, causing extensive damage to an important exhibit on Taínos and other indigenous groups. The grant enabled the museum to restore artifacts and reopen a comprehensive exhibition to the public.
All of these groups need help again after Fiona struck. The two storms remind us that Puerto Rico is in a state of increasing vulnerability. Resolving the energy crisis, the impact of climate change and the ongoing migration off the island are essential priorities for both the citizens of this island and the nation to which it belongs. Nonprofits cannot address these issues alone, but they can play a critical role in creating accessible healthcare, supporting the arts and innovating in agriculture to improve farmers’ lives.
We call on all of our partners in philanthropy, business and the arts to join our family and make direct investments in Puerto Rico.