Press Release

Nurses Demand Congress Act to Avert Further Public Health Calamity in Puerto Rico

In a letter to all members of Congress today, National Nurses United, whose disaster relief organization has placed 50 volunteer RNs on the ground in Puerto Rico, is pressing Congress to “take immediate action to prevent a further public health calamity in Puerto Rico”.

“The response to the crisis in Puerto Rico from the U.S. federal government has been unacceptable for the wealthiest country in the world,” wrote NNU RN Co-Presidents Deborah Burger and Jean Ross, citing eyewitness accounts by RNs on the ground, and the ongoing crisis of lack of water, food, and other emergencies faced by the island’s 3.5 million residents.

Among conditions our RNs witness, NNU notes, are:

  • People standing in line for hours in blistering heat waiting for desperately needed water and food, only to finally see federal disaster officials bringing paperwork “to collect data” rather than supplying critical supplies.
  • Residents continuing to live in houses with roofs blown off and soaked interiors where there is dangerous black mold growing that creates respiratory distress and illness.
  • Major areas away from urban centers where residents still have received no provisions, have no running water and no electricity.
  • A breakout of leptospirosis, a dangerous bacterial disease that has already claimed lives.
  • Numerous communities without clean water that are at risk of the outbreak of water-borne illness epidemics.
  • Further, NNU notes a glaring disparity between the federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida.  “The people of Puerto Rico are counting on your leadership to survive,” wrote Burger and Ross.

Specifically, they called for:

  • Congress to exercise its oversight authority to ensure the expeditious functioning and efficacy of FEMA and other U.S. relief efforts on the ground. Citing shipping containers filled with food, water, and medicine that sit undistributed in the San Juan port, FEMA and the U.S. armed forces should greatly expand the use of air drops of water, food, and medicine. Human and financial resources must be deployed to overcome the bottlenecks that are keeping help from reaching those most in need, which range from a lack of communication to blocked roads to a shortage of vehicles and drivers to make deliveries.
  • The Department of Defense to supply greater technological and logistics support to Puerto Rico, immediately provide generators for hospitals and other essential infrastructure, install temporary telecommunications connections in remote areas, and deploy boots on the ground to help clear roads and deliver humanitarian aid.
  • Cancellation of all Puerto Rican public debt by Congress: prioritize the lives of Puerto Ricans over debt payments to Wall Street. The cancellation of Puerto Rico’s public debt would free up millions of dollars for both short and long-term recovery efforts.

Making matters worse, NNU added, it was reported today that $5 billion of a supplemental relief package has been earmarked as “a loan” that Puerto Rico must pay back, “an unconscionable gift to the banks at the expense of the people in Puerto Rico facing calamity,” Burger said.

“Congress’s emergency supplemental appropriations bill for Puerto Rico must fully fund the immediate recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, invest in critical infrastructure such as the electric grid and roads, and grant all Puerto Ricans immediate eligibility for Medicaid and ensure that the federal government provides equitable healthcare funding to make sure that each person in Puerto Rico receive the care they need in the midst of this public health crisis,” wrote Burger and Ross.

Fully three weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, RN volunteers have described dire conditions and countless number of residents still in desperate need for assistance amid a federal relief effort that has failed to reach many people in need.

NNU’s RN Response Network dispatched 50 volunteer RNs to Puerto Rico a week ago, part of an AFL-CIO multi-union deployment. The RNs have been sending in frequent reports about the devastation and ongoing crisis that remains at a perilous stage.

Two reports from yesterday are continuing testimony:

"Today our team traveled into the center of island into the mountain towns of Utuado. These towns are isolated that relief efforts have not made it into these areas. It was due to impassable roads. But the local community cleared most of the roads. People said we were the first relief group to come into the area. But she is unable to get out. And they’re having a hard time getting food and water. Yes, her son is staying with her. He cares for her but is also sick. They’re struggling to get basics such as food, water and medicine." – Roxanna Garcia, RN

“Yesterday we went to Utuado, a town up in the center of the island. We stopped many times along the way to educate people on water safety. It’s a mountain community with small pueblos all over, many cut off since Maria by fallen bridges and blocked roads. We stopped in the center of town at the National Guard. They had lists of all the areas that had been seen by medical groups. We went to an area that nobody had visited where roads were recently opened. People are somehow surviving with the food and medicine they had on hand. They have received NO provisions. There is no running water and no electricity. Nobody is aware of the risks of drinking untreated water. We went house-to-house teaching families and asking that they spread the word. We also provided urgent care where we could. These communities are at great risk of water born illness epidemics. They need clean water that is safe to drink! There is a public health crisis coming to Puerto Rico that we could prevent with proper supplies and support from the US government. These conditions would not be tolerated in the 50 states. It is outrageous that we are leaving our fellow Americans with essentially no aid. Many more will die if we don't step up.” – Erin Carrera, RN

See earlier RNRN reports at: