Puerto Rico — The On­go­ing Dis­as­ter

Trillions - - In this Issue -

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.

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 mod­ern­day “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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.