February 8, 2018 at 6:00 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Puerto Rico mayor: ‘We are American citizens’

Ponce Mayor María “Mayita” Meléndez spoke with the Washington Blade at her office in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 2, 2018.

PONCE, Puerto Rico — The mayor of the one of Puerto Rico’s largest cities on Feb. 2 said the situation in many parts of the U.S. commonwealth remains dire more than four months after Hurricane Maria.

Ponce Mayor María “Mayita” Meléndez noted to the Washington Blade during an interview in her office at Ponce City Hall that electricity has not been restored to many parts of rural Puerto Rico. Meléndez also said some people who live in these areas still do not have running water.

“The devastation is in the rural areas,” she said.

Ponce is located on Puerto Rico’s southern coast. Meléndez, a Democrat who is a member of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s New Progressive Party that supports statehood, has been in office since 2009.

Meléndez’s government in 2016 provided psychological support and other assistance to the families of the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., who were from Ponce. Meléndez has also urged the federal government to restore Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency Act funds that her city used to provide medications and other care to people with HIV/AIDS.

“I work for everyone,” she told the Blade. “Everyone who comes here and asks for help, we will give you the help.”

Electricity largely restored in city’s urban neighborhoods

Ponce is roughly 70 miles west of Puerto Rico’s southeast coast where Maria made landfall on Sept. 20 with 155 mph winds. The hurricane’s eye passed over the municipalities of Yabucoa, San Lorenzo, Caguas, Aguas Buenas, Comerío, Naranjito, Corozal, Morovis, Ciales, Manatí, Florida, Barceloneta and Arecibo before it moved offshore on the island’s northern coast.

Meléndez told the Blade her government removed debris from downtown Ponce less than a month after Maria because it is a center of economic activity.

“I cleaned the city,” she said, noting there are several hotels in the immediate area in which people were able to stay after the hurricane. “I cleaned downtown. I opened places and opened all the roads so people can come here.”

T-shirts for sale at a store in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 2, 2018, have a hashtag that reads “Puerto Rico will rise again.” (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Meléndez said electricity was restored to downtown Ponce roughly a month and a half after Maria.

She told the Blade she did not have electricity at her home, which is a five minute drive from City Hall, for 42 days. Meléndez said 93 percent of the people who live in Ponce’s 12 urban wards have had their power restored.

“That’s good for us,” she said.

Ponce City Hall in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 2, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Meléndez noted to the Blade that Ponce’s port and airport and hotels are open and her city “is doing business.” She said people who live outside of Ponce’s urban wards and in parts of the city that are in the mountains still do not have electricity.

Throwing paper towels at church was ‘very bad’

Meléndez and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz last month attended the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Winter Meeting in D.C. The Latino Leaders Network also honored Meléndez and Cruz for their response to Maria and Hurricane Irma, which brushed Puerto Rico on Sept. 7.

Cruz remains among the most vocal critics of President Trump’s response to Maria.

Trump on Oct. 3 sparked outrage when he threw paper towels into a crowd of people who were gathered at an evangelical church in the wealthy San Juan suburb of Guaynabo where relief supplies were being distributed. Rosselló and Guaynabo Mayor Angel Pérez were with Trump when he was at the church.

Meléndez told the Blade that she, Cruz, Pérez, Bayamón Mayor Ramón Rivera and Arecibo Mayor Carlos Molina met with Trump when he was in Puerto Rico. Meléndez said she did not know Trump, Rosselló and Pérez had gone to the church because she had been in a meeting with then-Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke.

“In Puerto Rico they have always distributed help by throwing it to people,” said Meléndez. “It is an old custom that we are getting rid of.”

“The president’s presence was used to participate in this custom and the act was very bad,” she added.

Meléndez told the Blade that she does not “have any problem” with Alejandro de la Campa, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Puerto Rico. She also said FEMA Administrator Brock Long has been “excellent in the states.”

The New York Times on Tuesday reported FEMA awarded a $156 million contract to Tiffany Brown, an Atlanta entrepreneur who has no experience in responding to major disasters, in order to prepare and deliver 30 million packaged meals to Puerto Ricans after Maria. FEMA in October cancelled the contract with Brown after only 50,000 meals were delivered.

Meléndez spoke with the Blade two days after reports surfaced that indicated FEMA would stop distributing food and water in Puerto Rico. Waves Ahead, an organization that has provided assistance to LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups, was bringing food and water to residents of the island of Vieques on Jan. 31 when this report broke.

From left: Wilfred Labiosa and Grissel Bonilla, co-founders of Waves Ahead, an organization that has provided assistance to LGBT Puerto Ricans and people with HIV/AIDS after Hurricane Maria, walk in a neighborhood in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 31, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Trump on Jan. 30 made a brief reference to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which Maria and Irma also devastated, in his State of the Union speech. FEMA later said it would not stop distributing food and water in Puerto Rico.

Meléndez said she wants the federal government to treat Puerto Ricans the same as other U.S. citizens who live in the mainland.

Puerto Ricans are unable to vote in presidential elections. Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, but she is unable to vote on bills once they reach the floor.

“We are American citizens,” Meléndez told the Blade. “As an American citizen, treat me equally as the same way that you treat California, that you treat Texas, that you treat Florida, New York.”

Governor is ‘doing an excellent job’

Meléndez also praised Rosselló’s response to Maria.

“The governor of Puerto Rico is doing an excellent job,” said Meléndez. “But he alone cannot make the people of the Congress aware that they have to be conscious of Puerto Rico.”

Meléndez described Rosselló’s decision to privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which is known by the acronym PREPA, after Maria and Irma as “excellent.” Meléndez also told the Blade the process “has to be transparent.”

Whitefish Energy Holdings, which is based in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont., signed a controversial $300 million contract with PREPA to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s power infrastructure. PREPA in late October cancelled the contract after Rosselló urged it to do so.

Puerto Rico first lady Beatriz Rosselló after Maria launched the Unidos por Puerto Rico fund in order to support the relief efforts.

Her plan to use some of the fund’s money to repair parks and sporting facilities sparked widespread outrage. Beatriz Rosselló last month announced she would withdraw the proposal.

A damaged utility pole and trees remain along the side of a road in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 2, 2018. Adjuntas is located roughly 15 miles north of the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico’s central mountains. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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