Editor’s Note: This press release was updated to reflect changes in the lineup of participating mayors since the initiative was launched.
It has been five months since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico. More than half a million people are still without power. Tens of thousands lack drinking water, and tens of thousands more are fleeing, seeking food and shelter in Florida, New York and elsewhere. Health care services have been hit hard, and the suicide rate is spiking.
Congress included disaster relief funding in the budget deal approved earlier this month, and President Trump on Friday extended additional aid. But the amount falls far short of what the island’s leadership estimates is needed to recover and prepare for future storms.
Mayors are stepping in to help.
The Open Society Foundations today is announcing the Mayor Exchange, a new initiative to connect local leaders with experience in dealing with disaster recovery on the mainland with their counterparts in Puerto Rico working to rebuild. Through this unique partnership, mainland mayors will share ideas, expertise and lessons learned from their own recovery efforts, giving those officials on the front lines of the island’s crisis a direct line for aid and consultation on the myriad humanitarian, fiscal and rebuilding challenges ahead.
Mayors on the mainland in return will have an opportunity to host their Puerto Rican peers, showcase their own recovery work, and gain vital insights and deeper awareness of the island’s situation—building much-needed support for our neighbors and fellow citizens in their time of need.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is chairing the Mayor Exchange, along with Puerto Rico Mayors Pedro García Figueroa of Hormigueros and Javier Jiménez Pérez of San Sebastián and Open Society Foundations President Patrick Gaspard.
“In New Orleans, we know what it’s like to suffer through a disaster,” says Mayor Landrieu. “When New Orleans has been in need after devastation, people from all over have helped lift us back up. This Mayor Exchange allows us and other cities around the country to return the favor. We are eager to do what we can to lean forward and help our neighbors stand back up. Sharing our path to recovery is an important step we can take to make every city more resilient in the face of disasters.”
Adds Mayor Figueroa: “Cities are the natural center of action for the people who inhabit them. They are where life takes place; everything starts from them. From within cities, the country is built. Strengthening the ties of cooperation and understanding between cities also contributes to the sharing of ideas that brings us closer together, to understand and help each other in the face of adversity—and, of course, to share successes.”
Open Society President Gaspard applauded the effort and urged leaders across the country to stand with Puerto Rico. “The federal government has let our neighbors languish in darkness, dislocation and despair. We are better than this. I am thrilled to see so many mayors eager to share their knowledge and experience with their counterparts on the island. This kind of collaboration reminds us what we are capable of, when we set politics aside, reach out our hands and help each other.”
Mayor Landrieu will lead the first delegation of participating mainland mayors to visit Puerto Rico on Feb. 25-26. Accompanying him will be Mayors Stephen Hagerty of Evanston, IL; Christopher Cabaldon of West Sacramento, CA; and Jorge Elorza of Providence, RI. Visiting mayors will meet with their local counterparts and fan out to the communities they represent.
On Monday morning, Mayor Landrieu will team up with María Meléndez, mayor of Ponce, Puerto Rico, located at the southern end of the island and surrounded by mountainous terrain where people have gone for months without electricity following the storm—and where companies are using drone technology to try to reconnect power lines.
Evanston Mayor Hagerty will join Mayor Carlos Delgado Altieri in touring Isabela, on the northwest coast, where aid organizations have been helping school children dealing with health challenges brought on by storm-related disruptions in the food supply.
Mayor Elorza of Providence will meet up with Mayor Nelson Torres Yordán of Guayanilla, about 12 miles west of Ponce, an area whose agricultural production has been devastated by the storm.
And Mayor Cabaldon of West Sacramento will visit with Mayor Jesús Márquez Rodríguez in Luquillo, a town on the northeast coast not far from Puerto Rico’s celebrated El Yunque rain forest. The eye of the hurricane passed through this area, leaving residents scrambling to find pumps for water and generators for power.
In the coming weeks, a number of other mainland mayors will also visit Puerto Rico. Among them: Mayors Tom Tait of Anaheim, CA; Jim Brainard of Carmel, IN; Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, IL; Michael Duggan of Denver, CO; Paul Soglin of Madison, WI; Catherine Pugh of Baltimore, MD; Jim Kenney of Philadelphia, PA; Ravinder Bhalla of Hoboken, NJ; and Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, PA.
The mainland mayors will also be hosting Puerto Rico mayors in their hometowns. In all, an estimated 40 mayors will participate.
The Mayor Exchange is funded by the Open Society Foundations, which has been working in Puerto Rico for years before the storm, supporting efforts to improve government transparency and accountability and encourage greater civic engagement. The exchange is being managed by HR&A Advisors, a New York-based consulting firm that has worked with U.S. mayors on urban development and governance issues for the past 40 years.