MIAMI – After Hurricane Irma and then Maria tore through the Caribbean islands, the United Nations swung into action with helicopters, food drops and multimillion-dollar recovery plans.

But even though both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were decimated by the hurricanes, they couldn't call the U.N. – an expert in disaster relief – for help.

The islands are U.S. territories with their own governors but no voting representation in Congress, so they must turn to the United States in times of need, even if they aren't on many Americans' radar.

"The governor of Puerto Rico can certainly not call the U.N. for help. Puerto Rico's foreign relations are handled as if Puerto Rico were fully domestic, a state like any other," said Christina Duffy Ponsa-Kraus, a Puerto Rico expert who teaches legal history at Columbia Law School.

Except they aren't states like any other.

"That is the awfulness of being a territory," said Jose Fuentes, chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council. "You have no political power within your own government and you don't have the ability to do anything internationally because everything has to go through the U.S. State Department."

The United States might have been more willing to intervene more aggressively if the two hurricane-ravaged territories actually were foreign countries, Ponsa-Kraus said.

"The territories are marginal, they are invisible, and they have no voice in Washington because you need a vote to have a voice," she said. "You've got these populations of American citizens living in these territories, but most Americans don't understand that they are American citizens."

A September poll conducted by Morning Consult, a media and polling firm, showed that only 54 percent of Americans surveyed knew that Puerto Ricans were fellow U.S. citizens.

The United States has five populated territories around the world plus a smattering of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Puerto Rico, with a population of 3.4 million, is by far the largest. The other populated territories are the U.S. Virgin Islands – which include St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix and 50 smaller islands and cays – American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

In the weeks since Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico, the government estimates that 40,000 Puerto Ricans have migrated to the mainland, many to Florida. Residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands also have gone to the U.S mainland since the one-two punch of the hurricanes.

If Puerto Rico, where the hurricane death toll now stands at 51, suffers from an invisibility problem in the minds of many Americans, then multiply that many times over for the U.S. Virgin Islands, with its population of only about 110,000.


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