Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait spent April 9 touring the Puerto Rican city of Guaynabo, just outside of San Juan. The trip—hosted by the city’s mayor, Angel Pérez Otero—had one goal: to emphasize the recovery process under way after the devastation left by Hurricane Maria in mid-September 2017.
The Mayor Exchange program, funded by the New York-based Open Society Foundations, partners 40 mainland mayors versed in natural-disaster preparedness and recovery with mayors in Puerto Rico in hopes of creating an ongoing relationship through which mutual learning can occur. The Anaheim mayor was selected by program chairman and mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu because of Tait’s experience in dealing with the wildfires that have become all too common in Orange County.
Just last October, two canyon fires tore through the hills of Orange County. Canyon Fire 2, as it was called, charred two dozen structures and burned 9,712 acres in Anaheim Hills. Wind-driven flames prompted local officials to evacuate residents in Anaheim, Orange and Tustin. Though Tait was happy to lend his knowledge on disaster relief to Pérez Otero, he was quick to qualify that Anaheim has never seen the level of destruction currently being experienced by Puerto Ricans.
Hurricane Maria completely devastated the island. The Puerto Rican government has estimated the cost of damages to the island at $95 billion.
Among other problems, Maria caused the second-largest power outage in the world. Andrew Mercado-Vázquez, a native of Puerto Rico living in San Juan and host of the podcast Puerto Rico Forward, noted that despite recent progress, tens of thousands of people are still without power. Vázquez recalled two other, less impactful, though still devastating, hurricanes in the past 20 years after which it took up to six months to restore power to the island.
Vázquez said he had not heard much of the Mayor Exchange program in the local press except for one English-language article in the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día. He welcomes the program but is wary about what it can actually accomplish. “Given the present economic and social hardships suffered by Puerto Rico, any good gesture is welcome,” he said. “However, I do need to point out that Puerto Rico must be understood before it can be helped. It’s a colonial territory, not a state, and therefore suffers particular limits that might not be an issue, or even a reality, to mayors in the continental U.S.”
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, is often referenced when trying to set the context of precarious economic life on the island. It requires that any goods traveling between the island and the mainland must be on American ships staffed with American crews. This greatly limits the possibility of Puerto Rico trading with its regional neighbors and inflates the cost of goods on an already cash-strapped island.
Tait noted that the Jones Act and other policy oddities discussed by the mayors “make you scratch your head,” but he is nonetheless optimistic about the potential benefits of the exchange program. “So much of the way the world works is based on relationships,” Tait said. “We have expertise that may be helpful to them, and they have expertise that may be helpful to us.”
Though this is an extremely trying time for Puerto Ricans, Tait found there was great resiliency in the residents with whom he engaged. “Resiliency . . . is something we have been working on in Anaheim,” he says. “People coming together, what I call social infrastructure—the government can only do so much during a natural disaster.”
Echoing Tait’s sentiments, Vázquez stated that, with some exceptions, Puerto Ricans have rolled with the day-to-day burdens of the post-Maria recovery. “Of course, when it comes to high-level projects,” he said, “only the government has the resources to tackle them; for example, fixing roads and collapsed bridges, re-establishing basic utilities, among others.”
To address both the urgency of the disaster and a necessary regaining of autonomy by the people of Puerto Rico, there is increasing interest in citizen-run energy co-ops. According to Vázquez, one such co-op is being developed in the barrio of Portugués, which is southeast of San Juan.
Another example of these citizen organizations are the Centro de Apoyo Mutuo, or the Mutual Aid Centers. The goal of the centers is to provide free, fresh food; act as a hub for distributing goods; and be a place for organizing citizens to rebuild their community. These organizations are often filling the gaps left by inadequate aid from local government or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. According to a New York Review of Books article, the Mutual Aid Centers are currently operating in eight different parts of the island.
For Tait, the trip was a reminder of the fragility that is inherent in running a city. “Every city can get something they are not prepared for, or you think you are prepared for, but you are not,” he said. Though he found the people of Puerto Rico admirable, he understands that the road that took them there is unimaginable.
Vázquez, who experienced the hurricane firsthand, described it as “something out of an unrealistic movie script . . . a truly intense experience.”
Mayor Pérez Otero will visit Anaheim within the next few months.
Adam J. Samaha is a writer and journalist living in Fullerton, California.