February 8, 2018 at 6:00 am EDT | 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

7 Comments
  • Puerto Ricans were Spanish citizens by birth since Puerto Rico was a spanish province, The US separated Puerto Rico from its motherland Spain and imposed a military regime, then it imposed the US citizenship in 1917, a second class colonial citizenship that does not match our culture, traditions, language or ancestry. The Reunification of Puerto Rico with Spain (google it, there is already a movement on the island) is the only solution for the status dilemma, more people in the Island are looking at this status option as the best status option which would give Puerto Rico a real autonomous government and would allow the Island to join the European Union. Spain is the leader of LGBT rights and its capital Madrid is the world’s best LGBT city, The Reunificaction of Puerto Rico with its Motherland Spain is not only best thing that could happen to Puerto Ricans and to the LGBT community on the Island, it is the only status option that can assure a first rate quality of life, economic development, progressive values and respect and protection of the Island’s culture, language and traditions.

    • Really? Is that why the Spanish economy has been in a recession for so long that many Spaniards have been forced to leave their country and relocate elsewhere to make a living? Spain can’t take care of its own so it’s a pipe dream to think it will provide for Puerto Ricans!

      You should be grateful you have US citizenship and can come and go into the US, live anywhere within it and apply for work anywhere within its borders! Some people never know what they have until the lose it!

      The island is the economic mess it is now because those Puerto Ricans in charge of it are corrupt, steal money for themselves and cater to special interests that keep the country from moving forward! Does it have a first rate metro system like Singapore for example? No because special interest demand they cater to private van pool owners who operate mini-vans like a third world country instead!

      Spain used to exploit Puerto Ricans and treat them as illegitimate children when it ruled over the island.

    • Spain can have you.

      • You hate everyone don’t you?! Can we give you away to Russia?

      • Gℴℴgle giving every one $97 per/hr to do some small tasks with a computer .. Labor Some just few hours & stay more time together with your own family … any individual can also have this official career!!!last Sunday I got a new McLaren F2 after just making $12659 this last four weeks .it seems the easiest-work but you may no longer forgive yourself if you don’t test it.!eh063h: http://GoogleReportFreelanceWorkFromHome/getpay/$97/perhour ♥r♥♥♥r♥s♥♥♥p♥♥♥z♥x♥♥n♥♥♥o♥♥k♥r♥♥m♥♥w♥v♥♥♥y♥♥♥w♥♥♥n♥♥w♥♥♥f♥♥e♥i♥♥♥h♥♥e♥y♥♥n♥♥p:::::!xg141c:wkyuk

    • Ever hear of Francisco Franco? You think Spain would’ve been a benevolent overseer when he was in power for 50 years?

      I think most Americans would be glad to cede Puerto Rico back to Spain! Adios!

      • Shows you’re a racist to boot! Figures as an ardent Trump brown noser that you would have that attitude about American citizens simply because they are Latino!

        Your Callous Fake POTUS’ response to Maria and subsequent igorning of the island illustrates that point!

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