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Puerto Rico -- The Ongoing Disaster

November 9, 2017

Almost 6 weeks after Hurricane Maria rammed into Puerto Rico, the island is still without essential services for most of its population. The prognosis is for more suffering and an ongoing disaster that may not be resolved in the foreseeable future.

Hurricane Maria, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in almost 100 years, crashed into the island with almost Category 5 winds on September 20, 2017.

The storm destroyed virtually everything in its path. Roads, water systems, telecommunications, buildings, homes, schools and all of the island’s agricultural-producing capabilities are mostly in piles of debris and/or totally non-functioning. It is estimated that as much as 80% of the island is still without electricity and 40% of the population has no access to running water. About 83% of the cell towers on the island were also knocked out by the storm. Hospitals are overwhelmed, and there are few fully-functional schools.

Even the systems which have seen some fixes have proved to be fragile. As of the morning of November 9, for example, a failure on the main north-south electrical transmission line knocked out power in most of San Juan. Prior to the this failure, electrical power capacity had been built up to 40% of normal. After this failure, power is back down to only 18% of normal.

More than 5,000 people on the island are also still living in shelters, with rainwater as their only source of water.

All this comes after approximately 15,000 people from the U.S. Department of Defense plus 2,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representatives have arrived on the island to help. But this is not enough – not nearly enough.

There are, of course, many other volunteer organizations and private contractors coming to Puerto Rico’s aid.

One of the private contractors, World Central Kitchen, and its volunteers have logged delivery of one million hot meals across the island as of October 17. They began production at 2,000 meals per day, a number that quickly grew to more than 25,000 a day, including sandwiches and paella.

According to Elizabeth Penniman, vice-president of communications for the American Red Cross, the organization has delivered an equivalent of 1.6 million meals since the disaster hit. Those came in the form of 1.4 million pounds of a variety of goods, including rice, canned items and other foods that are stable without refrigeration.

As of mid-October, it was also estimated that FEMA was helping to distribute an estimated 200,000 meals a day to help feed the more than two million residents in need of food.

Those numbers may sound good – until one realizes that there is no food being produced on the island and that Puerto Rico’s total population is about 3.4 million. Many residents are simply going hungry.

To address the water shortage, FEMA has distributed about 23 million liters of water to the population, but that only covers about 9% of the island’s drinking-water needs. Many people have resorted to drinking from rivers, with the water filled with bacteria, parasites, sludge and toxic chemicals.

In an interview with Common Dreams, Cathy Kennedy, vice-president of the Nurses United Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN), who recently returned from a two-week trip to Puerto Rico, said: “The people in Puerto Rico are dying. Nurses have been going out into communities where all they ask for is water and food. And when you have to make the decision of who’s going to get the food today – or the water – we shouldn’t have to do that. The United States is the richest country in the world. Puerto Rico is part of the United States.”

Meanwhile, when asked by reporters about how well he has done in managing the nation’s response to Hurricane Maria’s leveling of Puerto Rico, Donald Trump said: “I would give myself a 10. We have provided so much, so fast.” For his audience, thinking about all those they know who are suffering beyond imagination, it must have been hard to keep from screaming when hearing those words.

The UN doesn't give Trump a 10 and eleven United Nations human rights experts have issued a joint statement decrying the "absence of adequate emergency response" by the United States. The UN calls upon the Trump administration to provide "a speedy and well-resourced emergency response that prioritizes the most vulnerable and at risk - children, older people, people with disabilities, women and homeless people.”

A Money Pit Beyond Imagination

The total damage to the island is currently estimated at $85 billion. After an 11-year recession and accumulation of a $75 billion public debt that is impossible for the island to currently consider repaying, this has created a financial sinkhole that can only get worse.

To deal with the existing tragedies in Puerto Rico, FEMA has pledged a mere $171 million to help restore power on the island. It has also directly distributed over $5 million to cities there, plus $1 million to Puerto Rico’s National Guard. Compared to the torrent of wind and rain that devastated the island, however, this is just a drop in the bucket of what is needed.

Trump has shown no interest in providing what Puerto Rico actually needs and has indicated that the aid will stop flowing sooner rather than later.

Combined with the gross corruption and incompetence within much of the Puerto Rican government, hope for the future is hard to conjure up for most.

Temporary Infrastructure Solutions

Some bright signs are visible – in the form of entrepreneurs and companies that are willing to step up to help in unusual ways.

Elon Musk of Tesla has agreed to consider how to replace the island’s badly-damaged electrical grid with other solutions that may even work far better than the old ways.

Google has already stepped in with a temporary telecommunications solution built around its Project Loon system. It uses helium balloons lifted into the stratosphere with onboard LTE transceivers and airborne solar cells to energize the solutions previously deployed in several remote regions around the world on a test basis. It is partnering with the Federal Communications Commission, FEMA and telecommunications provider AT&T to provide text messaging and minor web-browsing capabilities across the island. This is only a temporary solution but may help provide basic connectivity for the residents.

The Fleeing Populace and Vanished Jobs

Even before the hurricane hit, Puerto Rico was steadily losing population. With more than half of the population living below the poverty line there was a steady stream of residents fleeing for the mainland.

With Puerto Rico now physically devastated, those who can leave the island and move somewhere else – even temporarily – appear to be doing so.

Recent surveys show that between 10 and 14% of the 3.4 million residents intend to leave for the mainland soon. The airports are now functioning to some extent, with virtually 100% of the outgoing seats on planes full. Puerto Rico’s flood of climate change refugees are just getting started, with as many as 100,000 taking up residence in Florida despite having no homes, no jobs and no families to help them out.

The impact on Florida is going to be big. Most of the immediate push for absorbing those traveling from Puerto Rico will be in Orange and Osceola counties. Planners in Osceola are already projecting that they may have to absorb as many as 2,000 new students in their 69 public schools.

As U.S. citizens, these immigrants will be entitled to – and may get – support within Florida that they might have found impossible to get if they had stayed on the island. It will be at a cost of overloading already strained services in the face of Florida’s own challenges, however.

Assuming they stay, the “refugees” will also create a significant tilt in demographics, race and even politics within southern Florida.

What this all means for Puerto Rico is something currently not spoken about much in the press. With there being very little way for most of those hurt by the storm to find work, and with tourism, the top business draw for the island, likely destroyed for a long time, Puerto Rico comes across very much like a war zone. Yet unlike in states like Texas or Florida, where the damage may be big but jobs are still available, even after the infrastructure on Puerto Rico reappears, the bigger uncertainties are whether the industries that used to function on the island will come back and whether the people will come back with them.

To rebuild the island’s economy will take highly competent leadership and vast amounts money, which are both currently lacking. It may take multiple public-private partnerships to pull the place back together. It may also take the equivalent of a modern-day “Marshall Plan” to redesign the entire concept of what Puerto Rico is – and can be. It will also likely take major tax breaks, plus forgiveness of much of Puerto Rico’s long-term debt, to make all that possible.

More likely, vulture capitalists will descend and pick the bones clean and end up owning most of the territory and infrastructure.