The US State Department is being flooded with calls after media reports that it’s making US citizens in Puerto Rico pay to be evacuated in the aftermath of hurricane Maria. According to those reports, it will hold their passports hostage until they pay up. And—guess what—people are mad on the internet.
But it isn’t true. Yes, the State Department does charge Americans when it transports them out of harm’s way in foreign countries. But Puerto Rico is part of the US, and US citizens don’t need a passport to travel there. So the agency isn’t participating at all in rescue operations on the island, says Ashley Garrigus, a spokeswoman for the US Bureau of Consular Affairs. The reports suggesting it is are “really confusing people in need,” she adds.
Puerto Rico’s special status—it’s a US territory but not a state (pdf)—has caused much befuddlement in the wake of Maria, even within the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is involved in response efforts in Puerto Rico, said today that it isn’t handling evacuations out of the island. When asked which agency was, a spokeswoman said she wasn’t “100% sure.” That same day, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, which also has boots on the ground in Puerto Rico, said its members are helping, but didn’t immediately have any information on whether evacuees had to pay.
Puerto Rico’s residents can’t participate in presidential elections, and their representative in Congress doesn’t have full voting rights. Still they are US citizens, and carry American passports, a fact of which nearly half of Americans are not aware , according to a Morning Consult poll.
That’s probably what led to the inaccurate reports that State Department policies applied in the island. Under US law, the agency has to seek a refund for the cost of evacuating American travelers stuck in emergency situations abroad. To ensure they pay, they have to sign promissory notes. A notation of that debt is marked on their passports, which they can’t use for travel abroad until it’s paid.
US citizens in other Caribbean islands in the path of recent hurricanes that aren’t part of the US, including St. Martin and Dominica, are subject to those rules. In recent days the State Department has evacuated some 2,500 Americans from those places. Garrigus said she didn’t know how many of them have signed promissory notes, but said these are waived only in special cases such as medical emergencies.