October 5, 2017
Hurricane Maria may have missed the mainland United States, but it blew Puerto Rico apart. With a lot of help from many, the island may come back from the brink and thrive again.
The Category 4 hurricane that lay waste to Puerto Rico may have moved out to sea, but the impact on Puerto Rico remains devastating. There is no power for most residents on the island, along with no water and little access to food or even basic medical care. As of this writing, there are supposedly four million meals’ worth of food lying on the ground in the unincorporated U.S. territory, but with roads inaccessible and even emergency vehicles limited in number, there are major challenges getting that food to those most in need. Distribution of drinking water is also suffering from the same problems.
Some cellphone systems are operational in limited areas, power is still out for a sizeable number of residents and the basic infrastructure is severely crippled. Fuel for cars is mostly not available, but then the roads those cars would have driven on have been shredded for the most part anyway. Homes are missing roofs, walls, windows and doors – if they are even still standing. Other buildings are in even worse shape.
As Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, put it in a recent interview, “There is horror in the streets. There is no electricity anywhere in Puerto Rico.”
This all happened after Hurricane Irma, a storm with equivalent deadly force, narrowly missed hitting Puerto Rico with a similar head-on attack. The heavy rains and strong winds from that hurricane, which passed by just days before, weakened the island considerably, making Maria’s passage more damaging.
The one-two punch of Irma’s close passage followed so quickly by Maria also ended up destroying about 80% of the island’s crops, for a net loss of around $780 million in agricultural production. This comes at a time when Puerto Rico had seen an economic resurgence with sugar cane, citrus fruits of all kinds and even tobacco bringing new life to a region in dire need of such hope. That is now all gone. It could take more than 10 years for the island to recover, even with aid.
Despite the former re-emergence of the agricultural sector, Puerto Rico was still importing about 85% of its food from off the island. With the current disaster, that number has risen to 100%, and it may stay this way for a long time.
As of this writing, inspectors had just discovered that the island’s Guajataca Dam, located in northwest Puerto Rico, was damaged badly by the storm. Water was being released slowly to relieve pressure there, but it was not clear how much difference this would make. About 70,000 people living downstream from the dam had been ordered to evacuate, just in case.
Maria caught Puerto Rico amid a disastrous economic crisis. That crisis had brought calls for help to the U.S. federal government even while the island itself had declared its own bankruptcy in May, in an act of desperation. Perhaps the most positive statement that could be made about the current disaster is that it will bring focus and aid more easily than before.
What the U.S. Federal Government Is Doing
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has already swung into action to help. After two federal disaster declarations for Puerto Rico, FEMA has now sent in approximately 10,000 federal employees on the ground. The organization reacted quickly by immediately sending urban search and rescue teams to Puerto Rico and providing emergency supplies of food, water, generators and even cots for those who need them.
The Department of Energy is the agency directly responsible for the energy security of the United States in all aspects, including renewable energy. It has deployed people and equipment around the island to do damage assessments, coordinate power restoration island-wide, ensure that emergency resources are in place at locations such as hospitals and shelters and immediately begin rebuilding the energy grid.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is responsible for the nation’s navigable waters and related environmental resources. With the lead office coordinating its activities for this out of USACE’s Jacksonville, Florida, district office, one of its first steps was to secure alternative/emergency permitting procedures post-Maria. These include the ability to discharge dredged or fill materials to relieve flooding, stabilize eroded shorelines, repair and replace structures such as docks and bulkheads, put in temporary utility lines, replace existing bridges, install emergency water intake structures where needed and remove debris from the waterways. USACE has also already shipped emergency power generators to Puerto Rico, to support its power supply.
The Department of Health and Human Services has the charter to “protect the health of all Americans and [provide] essential human service.” It is bringing in both professionals and volunteers to supplement the hardworking doctors and nurses on the island. Four more teams are being deployed as of this writing. The Department of Transportation, which is responsible for all public infrastructure related to transportation, has stepped in to do the necessary repairs to reopen several airports on the island. This is already allowing military and relief flights to deploy across the region quickly.
How the Government of Puerto Rico Is Responding
Once the federal disaster declarations and initial responses were in place, Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló moved forward to coordinate actions within the island. One of his first steps was to assign Omar Marrero, the director of the Public-Private Partnerships Authority, to move to expeditiously process concessions for private companies regarding infrastructure and public services. The goal was to find ways to rebuild the island’s critical support systems. This would involve accepting unsolicited proposals and providing quick response within the government to get projects authorized and funds released.
On a second front, Ramón Rosario, el secretario de asuntos públicos (the secretary of public affairs for Puerto Rico), took action to set up public schools with available potable water to provide a focal point for distributing clean drinking water for the local communities.
In the major urban area of Carolina, Mayor José Carlos Aponte, said that as a result of a series of major task force deployments after Maria hit, it has already cleared roads in the area so that 95% of them are passable. Only 30% of the bridges were cleared out as of September 24, and the bridges at La Calle have been closed for the moment for safety. Those bridges will be receiving priority support from the island government and USACE, and rerouting options are already in place to allow traffic to flow around them.
Aponte emphasized that his team’s resources have been working throughout the urban area to get rid of fallen trees and other debris. Other city employees have been working to restore city lighting and gas stations to full service. Police and other services are also being put in place to keep order where needed.
What Is Most Needed
As one reads and listens to those both providing aid and those in need of it, what becomes clearest is that leadership and organization for Puerto Rico’s recovery is still lacking in many ways.
Those who landed first on the island included a substantial contingent whose focus was to assess human need and damage and put together a triage approach to deliver assistance. However, they arrived without the ability to travel easily to some of the more remote areas, making it impossible to do that assessment properly. It also appears that the mix of supplies, equipment, food, water and people is both off and inadequate, even now, long enough after the storms have passed, when the needs should be clearer.
One thing that most local politicians and those leading the federal aid groups coming into Puerto Rico have understood is that this is no time for grandstanding or laying blame. People are still at high risk on the island, and the focus should be on what needs to be done now plus how to do it, not to turn the situation into a public relations opportunity. One can hope that when President Donald Trump arrives on the island in a few days, he, too, will pull back from some of the selfserving rhetoric that came out after he visited Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
A Cautionary Concern
Even as help is coming through for Puerto Rico, frustration is growing among the residents over the lack of coordination, lack of aid throughout the island, and the seeming inability of the Federal and local authorities to get food, water, power, and other infrastructure everywhere it is needed.
Put another way: the natives are getting very restless over the lack of help.
In contrast to the assistance flowing in easily to areas damaged in Texas from Hurricane Harvey and throughout southern Florida from Hurricane Irma, the aid to Puerto Rico does seem to be coming in very slowly. Understandably those suffering within Puerto Rico are frustrated with what seems an extremely long response from the Federal government.
With all that there is a growing concern at the highest levels of government that civil unrest is beginning to grow at an alarming rate.
In response, the Feds have not just sent in more personnel to help with aid and recovery. They are also apparently beginning to send in troops to deal with that unrest. One of the biggest actions of that kind was the sending of the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault vessel, to Puerto Rico as part of what appears to be a planned military intervention. It is being handled quietly and out of the focus of most media, but it is happening.
The plan, part of which has already been announced by Governor Ricardo Roselló, is to add thousands more US Army and National Guard soldiers to the existing contingent of 1,500 members of the Puerto Rican National Guard. They are being deployed for the supposed reason of making up for the infrastructure and logistics collapse on the island. They are also there to assist with expected new medical epidemics as contaminated floodwaters, a spreading mosquito problem, and sewers clog with toxic waste.
Beyond that purpose is also apparently the move to potentially militarize the island support structure. The leadership coming in includes Brigadier General Richard Kim, formerly Deputy Commanding General of the United States Army North Division, and whose background includes combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He will be put in place along with other high-level military officers. His charter will include direction of the entire US recovery operations in Puerto Rico, plus coordination of FEMA, other government agencies and private sector responses on the island.
Although supposedly being sent in to provide support for aid and infrastructure, there is no getting around that this will be the single largest US military deployment on the island in history. It will take considerable care to avoid having so many military slow down or completely disrupt the re-emergence of civilian life there.
There Is Hope
While much still needs to be done to restore basic services on the island, there is clearly a united front from federal, local and volunteer agencies to bring help to Puerto Rico. It may take years for the island to fully recover, but with help and support from all, there is indeed hope that life in Puerto Rico will be close to normal in the not-too-distant future.