We're trying to imagine what it's like to lose nearly everything in a storm — or even to live for months without electricity.
We get impatient when our power goes out overnight. To live without it for more than half a year, as thousands of residents in Puerto Rico have? That's unfathomable.
What if, in addition to losing power in our homes, our community was wrecked by a devastating storm? And what if there appeared to be little or no help in sight?
Would you leave your storm-ravaged region for a different part of the nation, where businesses, the schools, health care facilities, are all operating normally?
Say you concluded you had no other choice.
Now get on your mark. Get set. Go — rebuild your life in less than a year.
That's essentially what has been expected of the evacuees from Puerto Rico who have come to Lancaster County in recent months.
Among them is Tamara Rivera-Santiago, who broke down in tears several times as she recounted her story to LNP last week.
Rivera-Santiago brought her three children, ages 2½ to 7, to Lancaster County after Hurricane Maria destroyed their home in Barranquitas in September.
Without other options, her family and seven others have been living in rooms at the Budget Host Inn on Lincoln Highway East in East Lampeter Township. But Rivera-Santiago has been told her FEMA housing assistance won't be renewed. She and her children now face the prospect of being homeless.
That's a travesty.
Emergency assistance of the sort dispensed by FEMA is, by definition, meant to be temporary. But it was FEMA's weak response to the catastrophe in Puerto Rico that forced so many island residents to leave for the mainland.
The website Politico recently reviewed, with the help of disaster response experts, FEMA's plan for dealing with the disaster.
Politico found that the federal government "significantly underestimated the potential damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria." It "relied too heavily on local officials and private-sector entities to handle the cleanup." It failed to take into account the financial instability of Puerto Rico's government. And it vastly underestimated the time it would take the island to shift from response to recovery mode.
Politico compared the federal government's response to Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey to its response to Puerto Rico after Maria. The discrepancies are stark and distressing:
• It took at least three weeks to deploy 70 helicopters to deliver emergency supplies to Puerto Rico. Seventy-three were deployed over Houston within six days of Harvey.
• "Nine days after the respective hurricanes," Politico reported, "FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Maria victims."
• Again, nine days after the respective hurricanes, the federal government had 30,000 personnel working in the Houston region. After Maria, the number in Puerto Rico was 10,000 — a mere third.
• And it took FEMA 43 days to approve permanent disaster work for Puerto Rico. It took the agency just 10 days to approve that work for Texas.
Yes, the logistics involved in helping Texas and Puerto Rico were different. But they both are part of the United States.
As a headline on a recent article in The Economist stated: "America has let down its Puerto Rican citizens."
It shouldn't continue to do so.
FEMA ought to be able to extend housing assistance to Rivera-Santiago and others like her, who remain in an acute state of crisis. We hope Congressman Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster County will champion their cause in Washington.
In the meantime, thankfully, there is the local Puerto Rican Evacuee Task Force, which has been meeting since January to help new arrivals from the island.
As LNP reported, arrivals who need assistance are initially directed to the Community Action Partnership for an intake interview. Then, CAP and SACA jointly handle case management, referring people to other organizations and programs as needed. Church World Service focuses on housing and job placement.
Because dozens of the evacuees need direct aid — money for a housing security deposit, for instance — CAP and its partners will host a benefit concert titled "Mi Casa, Su Casa" ("My House (Is) Your House") from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Tellus360 in downtown Lancaster. We hope you'll attend and support this cause if you're able. The aim is to raise at least $10,000.
"We want to help everyone we can," Milzy Carrasco, development director at San Juan Bautista Church, told LNP.
That is, after all, the ethic of people in this city and county of ours, and we laud those who are working hard to meet the needs of the Puerto Rican evacuees.
But this is a huge effort, and it's going to require more resources from state and federal government.
The School District of Lancaster essentially has gained a whole other school population in its 300 new students. And the needs of the evacuees are great.
CAP has been granted about $27,000 by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to provide rapid rehousing dollars for arrivals whose FEMA assistance is ending. But that sum, while helpful, "won't actually serve that many households given the cost of housing," said Dan Jurman, CAP's chief executive officer.
"What we're getting is not as much as we need to do the work," he said, adding that he also struggles "with how long it's taken to see what financial support has been made available."
We hope Congressman Smucker is exploring that question. It demands an answer — and a remedy.