Puerto Rico Gets Back on Its Feet, with Help

Trillions - - In This Issue -

Hur­ri­cane Maria may have missed the main­land United States, but it blew Puerto Rico apart. With help from many, how­ever, the is­land will 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.

Photo by The Na­tional Guard, CC

Photo by Joseph David­son, CC

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