It's been more than five months since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, damaging or destroying thousands of homes and knocking out power across the island. Today, hundreds of thousands of residents still have no electricity, and many lack access to reliably clean water. Tens of thousands of people have fled Puerto Rico for the mainland U.S. since the storm.
The federal government has been criticized for its immediate response to the disaster, and for providing inadequate funding to help the island begin to rebuild.
Now a new network of local leaders is stepping in to provide aid and support from cities on the mainland to decimated localities in Puerto Rico.
Called the Mayor Exchange and backed by funding from the Open Society Foundations, the group includes mainland mayors with experience in disaster recovery who can offer help to their counterparts on the island.
Over the coming weeks, 40 mayors will visit Puerto Rico from places like Chicago, Denver, Houston, New Haven, Conn., Philadelphia, Miami, New Orleans and Tampa. They'll assist on everything from applying for and administering Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, to planning the massive projects to repair and rebuild the island, to navigating the federal power structure in Washington.
The exchange was created by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is undoubtedly an authority on disaster recovery: He was serving as the lieutenant governor of Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and since 2010 he has overseen New Orleans' effort to rebuild.
(He has been term-limited out of office and will be succeeded by LaToya Cantrell in May.) Landrieu pitched his idea for the Mayor Exchange at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting in Washington, D.C., in late January.
“In New Orleans, we know what it’s like to suffer through a disaster,” Landrieu said in a statement announcing the Exchange last week. "When New Orleans has been in need after devastation, people from all over helped lift us back up. This Mayor Exchange allows us and other cities around the country to return the favor.”
“Mitch heard us because he suffered through Katrina,” says Maria Melendez, mayor of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city.
Landrieu's background -- and his position as the Conference of Mayors' current president -- gave him a platform to launch the exchange. But it was his description of the damage in Puerto Rico that convinced many mayors to join.
“For all of us, it was tough to hear," says Evanston, Ill., Mayor Steve Hagerty. "Things are pretty tough in Puerto Rico, with the lack of power and the extent of damage. And we wanted to do something.”
Hagerty has a wealth of experience in managing recovery efforts.
Prior to serving in office, he worked in emergency management for the firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. He spent two years helping New York City recover after 9/11, and he worked on the Gulf Coast after Katrina. Hagerty's first foray into emergency work came after Hurricane Andrew slammed the Florida coast in 1992.
“When I was working in Florida after Andrew, I didn’t seen the extent of damage that I saw flying into Puerto Rico after Maria,” Hagerty says. “Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged. And that’s going to take a decade to rebuild.”
Initial estimates put the cost to rebuild Puerto Rico at $95 billion. Money approved by the federal government so far is tens of billions of dollars short of that. And the final price tag will likely be even higher.
Puerto Rican mayors like Melendez must walk a political tightrope. She says she's grateful for the resources the island has received, but she knows that much more money is needed. And she's concerned that Puerto Rico's territorial status, along with its lack of full representation in Congress, will make securing a financial committment to rebuild Puerto Rico more difficult.
“American has to understand we are American citizens,” she says. “And we are sure disasters will come again.”
Along with Landrieu, the Mayor Exchange will be co-chaired by two Puerto Rican mayors, Pedro García Figueroa of Hormigueros and Javier Jiménez Pérez of San Sebastián, as well as Open Society Foundations president Patrick Gaspard.
Landrieu led the first delegation of the group to Puerto Rico last week, accompanied by Hagerty and mayors Christopher Cabaldon of West Sacramento, Calif., and Jorge Elorza of Providence, R.I. They met with their counterparts in Puerto Rico including Melendez in Ponce, Mayor Carlos Delgado Altieri in Isabela, Mayor Nelson Torres Yordán of Guayanilla, and Mayor Jesús Márquez Rodríguez in Luquillo.
More delegations will follow in the weeks to come, and the mainland mayors plan to host the Puerto Rico leaders in their cities as well.
Melendez says she's hopeful that the exchange will help speed the island's rebuilding process, and ultimately bring back some of the residents who have left. Puerto Rico's population was declining even before the hurricane: About half a million people have left the island since its population peaked near 4 million in 2004.
"They will be back when they see economic development on the island,” Melendez says.