Puerto Rico faces mountain of obstacles on road to recovery

An estimated 3.4 million people without power
A collapsed building after Hurricane Maria in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21, 2017.
A collapsed building after Hurricane Maria in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21, 2017.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A day after Hurricane Maria razed Puerto Rico, its ferocious winds smashing houses, hotels, cellphone towers and the island’s entire electrical grid, the fear and frustration were pervasive Thursday.

Power was out everywhere. Cellphones were mostly useless, forcing panicked residents to scramble for news from far-flung relatives. Much of the island’s water was undrinkable. Roads were carpeted in debris. And still the full scope of the damage was unknown. By day’s end, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, said there had been no contact with officials in 85 percent of the island.

For Puerto Rico, long crippled by enormous debt and an essentially bankrupt financial system, the road to recovery just went from long to seemingly endless. Still reeling from Hurricane Irma, which knocked out 70 percent of the power when it grazed the island two weeks ago, it faces a mountain of need in the coming months just as the federal government is stretched to the limit grappling with the destruction left by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

And unlike Texas and Florida, politically powerful states on the mainland, Puerto Rico is an impoverished, Spanish-speaking commonwealth. It is an island to boot, making aid delivery all the more cumbersome and expensive.

“The irony is we’re in crisis here, and go figure, a phenomenon like this one comes to destroy us,” said Edwin Serrano, 37, a construction worker who lives in the Old San Juan district. “This is going to be a long haul.”

On Thursday, the island was declared a federal disaster zone, freeing up federal emergency money.

The first major steps toward recovery will get underway Friday morning when an airport tarmac in San Juan, cleared of debris, will open to begin receiving three or four daily emergency planeloads of much-needed generators, water, tents, cots and other crucial supplies, said Alejandro de la Campa, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Puerto Rico. Both commercial and military planes will be used for the flights. Emergency teams will also start to fan out across the island to begin helping residents with their immediate needs, he added.

A total of 3,200 federal workers were on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to help with response and recovery, said Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress.

Planes will be dispatched Friday to survey remote regions, where Hurricane Maria’s toll has been impossible to know. With most radio stations, television antennas and cellphone towers down, Rosselló said the government had no contact with local officials with knowledge of how much damage had been done.

“I haven’t been able to reach my parents yet either,” Rosselló said. (His father is Pedro Rosselló, a former governor.)

Re-establishing communications was a priority, the governor said, although the task would be gargantuan. The Federal Communications Commission estimated on Thursday that Puerto Rico had lost 95 percent of its wireless cell sites.

“In the next 24 to 48 hours, the scene will become clearer,” Rosselló said.

Also a major priority is reopening the ports in San Juan, Ponce and Mayagüez, key economic lifelines.

Three emergency management teams mobilized Thursday, heading to the towns of Fajardo, Caguas and Humacao to start clearing roads and addressing urgent needs. With the rain and floodwaters still pounding the island, the danger was real. The authorities spent the day rescuing people stranded on roofs or at sea. In Utuado, three bedridden elderly sisters were missing after being buried by a landslide of mud that broke through the window of a cement house where they were riding out the storm, according to local news media reports.

Hurricane Maria also pummeled other Caribbean islands, including Dominica, where the devastation was overwhelming and recovery seemed even more distant. The capital, Roseau, was flooded and the main hospital was damaged. Officials there made urgent appeals for fresh water, food and tarpaulins. With no communication, several communities remained entirely isolated.

Hurricane Maria has been blamed for 15 deaths in Dominica, two in Guadeloupe and two in Puerto Rico, a toll that is expected to climb.

Complicating Puerto Rico’s recovery is the island’s devastated economy. The island has been mired in a deep recession for more than a decade and carries $74 billion in debt. With no way of repaying it, Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy in May, the first time in history that an American state or territory had taken the extraordinary measure. The island’s finances are also being overseen by a federal control board.

If there is anything promising it is that, as a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico can receive money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That money is expected to provide the bulk of what Puerto Rico needs to rebuild critical infrastructure, which had been neglected and crumbling well before the hurricane, as well as houses and buildings.

The hope now is that, as a result of disaster aid, Puerto Rico can modernize its electrical grid, roads and bridges. It is a goal the federal government shares.

“At least 75 percent of the recovery money is going to come from FEMA,” said David Merrick, director of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security program at Florida State University. “It becomes ‘how do I build back in a way that’s better.’ This is the time, unfortunately, to make those changes and not just blind duct-tape everything back together the way it was.”

But the blow from Hurricane Maria is monumental.

Piecing together Puerto Rico will be especially hard — and expensive — because it is an island. Everything must be flown or shipped in, requiring more time and money than if goods could be trucked in. The high uninsured or underinsured rate in Puerto Rico will also slow the process.

Daily life will soon grow almost intolerable for all and dangerous for some, like the older and frail. Many parts of the hot and humid island are expected to go months without electricity, the governor said. Cooking will be onerous. Hot showers will be a memory. In some regions, clean water will be hard to access.

Ricardo Ramos, the director of the beleaguered government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, told CNN on Thursday that the island’s power infrastructure had been basically “destroyed” and will take months to come back.

Residents, Ramos said, would need to change the way they cook and cool off. For entertainment, old-school would be the best approach, he said. “It’s a good time for dads to buy a ball and a glove and change the way you entertain your children.”

But with many businesses blown away, the post-storm landscape is expected to drive even more people out of Puerto Rico and into the arms of relatives and friends on the mainland, a scenario that will exacerbate the ongoing brain drain and further shrink the island’s tax base.

Rep. Darren Soto, whose district includes Orlando, Florida, where many Puerto Ricans have landed as part of the island’s exodus, said he is talking with local and state officials to ready schools and assistance offices.

“We are preparing in Central Florida for a huge influx from folks on the island seeking shelter,” he said. “We have seen tens of thousands relocated before the storm. We expect that to go up precipitously.”

Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University and an expert on Puerto Rican migration, said islanders who were torn about whether to stay or go will not hesitate to leave, even if for the short term. Elderly people who require regular medical attention could be the first to leave.

“Given the gravity of the situation,” he said, “we will see people leaving altogether.”

Hurricane Maria is likely to set back investment on the island and, at least for a while, cripple the tourism industry, which had been one small bright spot in Puerto Rico’s growth.

The price tag for all this damage, here and elsewhere, will be monumental. But Soto, a Democrat, said that he expects Republicans in Congress to take a sensible and generous approach to rebuilding, not just in parts of Texas and Florida, but also in Puerto Rico.

“There is always a concern for both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands because they don’t have the same representation in Congress,” he said. “But there are a lot of allies in Congress that will step up.”

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