Five years after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico and exposed the funding problems the Caribbean island has long faced, philanthropists warn that many of those issues remain unaddressed, just like the repairs still needed for the American territory’s physical infrastructure.
The Category 4 storm, with winds reaching 155 miles per hour, killed dozens immediately on Sept. 20, 2017, and researchers estimate thousands more died in the aftermath due to the lack of permanent shelter and power. According to a Hispanic Federation report released Wednesday, Hurricane Maria did an estimated $90 billion in damage to the island.
“It was just such a scary moment,” said “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who helped mobilize millions in aid for Puerto Rico. “But one of the silver linings has been the coalition building between the diaspora and residents on the island that was really formed out of those challenges.”
That coalition building was sorely needed, because Puerto Rico and its residents have an unusual image problem in philanthropy, said Hispanic Federation President and Chief Executive Frankie Miranda. International nonprofits generally left it out of donations given to the neediest populations because it is part of the United States, while American nonprofits often left it out of programs by earmarking donations only for the 50 states.
That long-running problem was intensified by what critics say was the Trump administration’s slow response to Hurricane Maria, which extended the impact of the storm, including the longest blackout in American history.
“It was about fairness,” said Frankie Miranda, adding that some federal recovery funds are only getting to Puerto Rico now. “It was about equity. We were not getting the fair share for people on the island compared to other disasters happening in the United States. So we needed to act.”
Frankie Miranda will lead a delegation from the Hispanic Federation — including Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is not related — to Puerto Rico on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of Hurricane Maria and survey what has been accomplished and what still needs to be done.
For Lin-Manuel Miranda, the storm was personal. He had family on the island whom he couldn’t reach because phone service was knocked out. He remembered learning that his uncle survived the storm from a photo on Facebook showing his uncle volunteering help.
However, his most successful initial fundraising campaign was not planned. Lin-Manuel Miranda, known for being level-headed and upbeat almost as he is known for his creativity, got mad about Trump’s reaction to the suffering he saw in Puerto Rico.
“You’re going straight to hell, @realdonaldtrump,” he tweeted, along with a link to the Hispanic Federation’s fund for Puerto Rico.
The reaction was fast and intense. Donations skyrocketed, eventually topping more than 200,000 separate gifts, as did attention for the victims of the hurricane. The next day, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s photo and tweet were on the front page of the New York Daily News next to Trump.
“I didn’t anticipate any of that,” he said. “But, anger can be a galvanizing force. And the widespread frustration with that president’s inability to engage with reality, sort of galvanized a lot of donations. That was the biggest moment in terms of fundraising.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda then worked to keep the momentum going. “I burned up my Rolodex to make that almost like praying,” he said, as he sought donations. “And then I burned up my Twitter DMs for people I didn’t know. The first six months it basically became our entire lives. I just put everything else in our lives on hold.”
Initially, the focus was on the “really nitty-gritty things, like food, water, basic recovery supplies.” Then, he began to expand the scope of the aid, eventually bringing a production of “Hamilton” to the island as a fundraiser.
Proceeds from those shows helped launch the Flamboyan Arts Fund, which helps preserve and support the arts in Puerto Rico with support from major nonprofits, including Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Mellon Foundation.
“We realized that the arts never get included in recovery efforts,” the “In the Heights” star said. “Yet, when you think about this tiny part of the world 100 miles across and how much it has given to the arts — it’s absurd how much Puerto Rican artists have enriched global culture. The No. 1 artist in the world, Bad Bunny, is from the island. So we need to protect Puerto Rican culture and Puerto Rican art on the island.”
Working with the Hispanic Federation, Lin-Manuel Miranda also helped support the Puerto Rican coffee industry, long a point of pride for the island because it could count popes and royalty among its customers.
“Coffee plants aren’t sunflowers — they don’t grow back in a season,” he said, adding that about 85% of the coffee crop was wiped out by Hurricane Maria. “We talked to anybody who was in the coffee business, in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, to figure out how to jumpstart this and also empower coffee growers. And now, at the five-year mark, coffee is back and exceeding pre-Hurricane Maria levels in terms of production.”
Sara Lomelin, chief executive of Philanthropy Together, a nonprofit that uses grassroots giving to diversify donations, said she worried that the underfunding of Puerto Rico by major donors would return once the emergencies caused by Hurricane Maria had passed.
“Everybody responds to disasters because you are seeing the direct effect,” Lomelin said. “What people forget is that when there is a disaster like Hurricane Maria or the wildfires in California or the pandemic, is that you can’t just put a Band-Aid on it. These things take years. And the problem is people move to the next disaster or move to the next issue after a couple of weeks or months and they forget the problem is still there.”
However, she said the current mix of medium-term and long-term donations in Puerto Rico gives her hope and that attention tied to the anniversary and Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts on Sept. 15, will provide momentum. “I love that the Hispanic Federation has these initiatives right now, where they are focusing on long-term things that need to happen,” she said. “I do believe that disasters can be the perfect time for people to get organized.”
Lomelin said that works best when donors listen to the communities receiving the funds. And that’s something that Hispanic Federation’s Frankie Miranda believes in and has invested more than $50 million in the island so far.
“There is so much that philanthropy can do,” he said. “But we also can be advocates so that organizations in Puerto Rico continue to be part of a participatory process, ensuring that the funds go to the neediest cases. Puerto Rico needs to remain on the philanthropy map for all of these major institutions.”