The recent ProPublica article, “Climate Change Won’t Stop for the Coronavirus Pandemic” argued that climate change was increasing the intensity of unrelated weather issues, causing greater hardship on those impacted. The author used the crisis of Hurricane Maria to demonstrate these impacts and the loss of faith in government by the people of Puerto Rico.
While the challenges in Puerto Rico are multi-pronged, we must not lose sight of the fact that some of the challenges are man-made.
At the moment, we are in the midst of perhaps the greatest public health threat in our lifetime. COVID-19 is attacking every U.S. state and territory, from our greatest global cities to the smallest, rural towns. The virus can attack anyone in its path, sparing no one based on wealth or status. At some point in the future, we are going to begin to rebuild from the pandemic in every sense: rebuild our health infrastructure, our economies and our psyches. While we will all face some degree of challenge as we rebuild, we must not overlook the fact that some communities will need more assistance in getting back up than others. We also must not overlook the fact that for some, such as members of the Puerto Rican community across the U.S. and right here in Connecticut, this is the third life-altering catastrophe in the last 3 years — hurricane, earthquake, and now pandemic.
This narrative can inform how we respond in the future. It has been more than two years since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. However, the devastation on the island and to displaced families across the continental U.S. (including here in Connecticut), continues. Despite the resiliency of the Puerto Rican people and their best efforts to rebuild, insurance companies have delayed and denied payments, frustrating the recovery. The policyholders remain cash-strapped and ill-equipped to battle the large insurance carriers with deep pockets and an army of lawyers.
The more than $100 billion in losses to the Puerto Rican people has been emotionally and economically crippling. Instead of paying policyholders what they deserve, many of the insurance companies are offering pennies on the dollar to repair catastrophic damage.
Despite the massive injustice on the part of the insurance carriers, the Puerto Rican claimholders have not quit, with many policyholders preserving their rights to continue fighting for fair payment. In spite of these efforts, the unfortunate fact is that while billions of dollars in insurable losses remain unpaid, the cost of that same insurance has skyrocketed. In some cases, the insured has paid more to the carrier than the carrier has paid to the insured. A release of payment on unpaid claims by the insurance carriers would provide the stimulus the island of Puerto Rico desperately needs and deserves. Now, more than two years later, many Puerto Ricans are being denied rightful insurance claims, claims that would be used to rebuild their homes, businesses, lives and families.
While there are multiple property & casualty insurance companies on the island, the largest is the Spanish insurance company, MAPFRE. MAPFRE is one of the largest insurance groups in Latin America with a growing presence in the United States. In fact, the company is headquartered just next door to us in Webster, Mass., and its subsidiaries operate in Connecticut.
MAPFRE currently owes billions of dollars in unpaid damages to Hurricane Maria victims including condominiums, government agencies, and municipalities. The New York Times in February provided a detailed chronicling of MAPFRE’s continued wrongdoing internationally and here on the mainland. If this is how they treat their policyholders in Puerto Rico, how can we be sure they would honor claims here in Connecticut?
The future is uncertain for all of us and we must band together, while standing physically apart. Our immediate goal must be to stop the spread of this disease and to protect the public’s health. Once we begin to rebuild, we will need to rely on the government as well as banking institutions, credit agencies and, of course, insurance companies. Now is the time to ensure that the corporate partners who are going to play a role in rebuilding the lives of our most vulnerable have a history of demonstrating they actually care about those of us who have lost the most. We cannot allow the most recent events to wash clean the obligations of the past.
Miguel Castro is the chairman of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus. Rep. Juan Candelaria of New Haven is a deputy speaker in the House of Representatives.
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