Issue #6: We’re Still Here

Understanding why federal relief aid for Puerto Rico has been slow for the US territory.  



On September 20 of this year, the US territory of Puerto Rico was hit by one of the most devastating hurricanes in the island’s history. Hurricane Maria – a Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds – directly hit the island, decimating their infrastructure and creating a major humanitarian crisis. Since Hurricane Maria however, federal help to the island nation has been slow.


Alex – a resident of Puerto Rico that works in the island’s hospitality industry and asked to be identified by first name only – knows all too well the island’s struggles over the last few months. Talking through email, Alex says while life on the island has started to gain some kind of normality after Hurricane Maria, it’s far from being ideal. With power almost non-existent on the island and supplies still being relatively hard to come by, life in Puerto Rico has still been a struggle.     


Between mixed messages from the White House and the conflicting reports on the ground, it can be hard to get an accurate assessment of the damage that Hurricane Maria has had on the US territory. Yet with the reports of residents still without power, along with food and water shortages being a normal way of life in some areas, it’s become increasingly clear that federal aid to Puerto Rico has come at a slow clip. What is even more surprising, has been the fact that Maria had hit Puerto Rico over two months ago and the island is still struggling with basic resources!


After all, Puerto Rico is a US territory, so its residents constitute as US citizens. If relief efforts have gone relatively smoothly in states like Texas and Florida – where they were also hit by massive hurricanes earlier this summer – why has federal relief to Puerto Rico been so slow/lackluster thus far?      



Before the Storm


To understand the problem in Puerto Rico, in regards to its hurricane relief effort, you first have to realize the situation the island was in before Maria had hit; specifically, the island’s massive debt crisis. For years, Puerto Rico has been dealing with a massive debt crisis which currently exceeds $70 billion (with an additional $50 billion in pension obligations). Even with Puerto Rico making severe cuts to its government spending and creating new tax revenues, problems that come along with a debt crisis such as population decline (ie a shrinking tax base) were still plaguing the island. For Puerto Rico, the only way out of its financial crisis was to declare bankruptcy this summer. Yet, while the decision to declare bankruptcy was a necessity, it also made them extremely vulnerable to a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria.


To be fair, recovering from a once in a generation hurricane, like Maria, would be a Herculean task even for a healthy economic base. For Puerto Rico, having to go through bankruptcy, when Maria hit is nothing less than a catastrophe.



Even before Maria, the island’s infrastructure systems like public transit and electrical grids weren’t in the greatest shape. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is a prime example of this. As Reuters had reported a few weeks ago, PREPA was an energy company trying to build itself back-up after they had declared bankruptcy last July. Due to their shrinking workforce and their $8 billion debt, the island’s electrical grid had been suffering way before Maria had reached landfall.


PREPA’s sinking revenues failed to keep Puerto Rico’s electrical lines at an acceptable operating level; which made the island’s electrical grid, subpar at best. What made matters worse were the absence of highly skilled workers (power plant operators, linemen, ect.) that were leaving PREPA quite regularly. According to the Reuters report, the company had lost over 2,000 workers in a four-year period. While much of that can be blamed on PREPA’s corporate mismanagement (which is well documented), a large portion of the blame could also be placed to Puerto Rico’s dwindling population, that according to the US Census data, saw an 8% population drop from 2010 to 2016. So once Maria hit the island, taking 80% of the transmission lines out and leaving about half of Puerto Rico still in the dark, PREPA was ill-equipped to handle the situation.


Sadly, our friend Alex also happened to be one of those unfortunate residents. In his own words, he described the current infrastructure situation in Puerto Rico as “a house of cards being blown over by a leaf blower.” He goes on by elaborating that, “it’s only recently that power has come on in our neighborhood. Before that, we would borrow some power from my next door neighbor through the use of their generator.” Even though power has been restored to where he lives, blackouts are still “a relative occurrence”, but feels lucky in the fact that he at least has electricity. In the more rural areas of the island, electricity and clean water are still a major problem.


Yet a company like PREPA isn’t an isolated case when it came to economic troubles in Puerto Rico. Debt in Puerto Rico has been a major problem in the island’s recovery and has only been made worse by a once-in-a-century hurricane hitting the island, at the worst possible moment. It’s currently being estimated that more than $95 billion in federal aid will be needed to effectively respond to the destruction that Maria has left behind. However, getting even a portion of that relief aid from the federal government is proving to be difficult.



Puerto Rico’s Problem with Representation


Since 1917, when the American government passed the Jones–Shafroth Act, Puerto Ricans had become US citizens. Yet while Puerto Ricans enjoy the various advantages of being US Citizens, the right to vote isn’t one of them. Much like American Samoa, District of Columbia, North Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands; Puerto Rico lacks full representation when it comes to their members voting on legislation in either the House or Senate. Even though Puerto Rico has over 4 million Americans living on the island, a population larger than 21 states(!!), representation in Congress pushing legislation that benefits their goals is non-existent.


As you may guess, Puerto Rico’s lack of representation in Congress has proved to be problematic when it comes to getting federal aid for Hurricane Maria.


As we said earlier, Puerto Rico will need tens of billions in capitol to rebuild its infrastructure, which according to Moody’s Analytics would cost around $95 billion. Considering very little of that $95 billion will come from insurance payments or other access to capital (banks, island revenue, ect), federal aid is the only viable option they are left with to rebuild a now devastated infrastructure. Sadly, the type of federal aid needed for Puerto Rico to even start rebuilding has stalled considerably.


In fact, reports show that Puerto Rico still hasn’t received the $4.9 billion in short-term loans that was promised by Congress in the storm aid package, that had passed in October. Also even getting that money proved to be problematic with many members of Congress questioning whether Puerto Rico would spend federal funds wisely.



Most of the current federal aid going to Puerto Rico is in the form of emergency FEMA funding, meant to focus of short-term projects. Yet this is only the beginning when you’re talking about Puerto Rico’s relief aid. The major conversation, that has yet to take place in Congress, revolves around the long-term funding projects of creating stronger infrastructures (a more sustainable power grid, better water networks, ect). To get funding towards these long-term infrastructure projects takes a certain amount of political clout that Puerto Rico just doesn’t have in Washington.


Compared to the other states that had been devastated by hurricanes during the same time period – Texas and Florida – representation in Congress is just not a factor: with Florida having 29 voting members and Texas having 38. This amount of representation in Congress not only helps push state policy for Florida and Texas, but makes sure that their issues aren’t forgotten. With Puerto Rico having only one non-voting Resident Commissioner – Jenniffer González – in Washington, that type of clout which both Florida and Texas have is non-existent. With political officials not worried about political repercussions, considering they don’t have to bring the Puerto Rican representative into the fold for voting purposes, then what reason is there to worry about Puerto Rico’s relief aid?


As for the time being, Alex considers himself very lucky to be living closer to tourism areas on the island, because of how he puts it, “at least in these areas are getting the basic needs met, like clean water and electricity. For the time being at least.” But he also says, “it’s slowly getting better. Though most of that is thanks to Puerto Ricans banning together, making sure everyone is ok. For the most part we’re getting by, but at this current pace of help from the federal government, I don’t think this is sustainable. I just hope that people on the mainland remember that we’re still here.”



(Photo Credits: Google Images)


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