For New Yorkers, Puerto Rico sometimes seems as if it’s a sixth borough; over 700,000 people from Puerto Rico live in New York City. In his piece last week, Rick Rojas of the New York Times noted the mobilization of this region’s people and governments to come to Puerto Rico’s aid, and reported that:
“The response to Hurricane Maria reflects Puerto Rico’s connection to New York that has stretched over decades, touching on politics, economics and culture. “It’s personal for us,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a news conference announcing aid. “As well as a governmental or an ethical obligation, it’s a personal obligation.””
The slow initial response by the federal government will soon be replaced by a massive effort to clear roads, get some of the electrical grid back up, and get food and water distributed throughout the island. But massive suffering and previously avoidable fatalities are now inevitable. While America has the knowledge and capacity to provide rapid first response after emergencies, that capability was not used in the first 10 days after Hurricane Maria’s 155 mile per hour winds destroyed huge parts of the Island. In the first few days after Maria, we did not seem to understand the scale of destruction. Most of the island’s crops were destroyed, a majority of its people lost access to fresh water, and the entire electrical system was blacked out. There was an initial federal emergency response, but it was far too small to deal with the massive scale of the disaster.
The Trump Administration’s tendency to focus on image over substance also didn’t help much, and came to a head in an exchange last week between Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Duke cited the small number of fatalities reported to date and called the response a “good news story” to which Cruz angrily responded: “This is, damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a ‘life or death’ story. This is ‘there’s a truckload of stuff that cannot be taken to people’ story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen.” Over the weekend we were treated to yet another Trump tweet-tantrum as he accused Mayor Cruz of being a bad leader and the Puerto Ricans of doing too little to help themselves. Clearly, the president had no understanding of the degree of destruction and seemed more interested in protecting his image than alleviating suffering. To her credit, Secretary Duke visited Puerto Rico and stated that conditions on the ground were not satisfactory.
The peril in Puerto Rico is that the slow response to the hurricane will lead to increased illness due to untreated sewage and waste, lack of access to clean drinking water, and inadequate nutrition. The economic crisis that the island already faced will make recovery difficult and could well lead to massive migration to the mainland. The commonwealth has lost 300,000 residents since the 2010 census, dropping from 3.7 to 3.4 million people. Puerto Ricans are American citizens and have the right to move anywhere in the United States they choose to live. If the most ambitious and talented people leave, the human resources available for new business and restored economic life will be further reduced.
A well-planned, well-financed response to Maria could reverse these trends. The potential for Puerto Rico could be achieved by constructing a more resilient, storm-resistant built environment. Donald Trump used to build things. He became famous in New York when he quickly rebuilt Central Park’s Wollman ice skating rink. Perhaps he is up to the challenge of redeveloping a small island. The storms of these past several weeks will hopefully not become an annual occurrence, but due to climate change, we will be seeing more frequent and more intense storms than we have in the past. We need to adapt to those changed conditions and rebuild Puerto Rico to withstand stronger and more intense storms. Starting with the building code, we should assume that construction must be capable of surviving flooding and strong winds. Hot water heaters and air conditioning units should no longer be placed in the basement or ground floor. Roofs should be made of materials that do not simply blow off in high winds. And the electrical system should be based on micro-grid and smart grid technology that permits renewable energy to be sent back to the grid, maximizes transmission efficiency, and allows for each community to disconnect from the grid when the central system collapses.
This last point was made recently by the Rocky Mountain Institute in a report entitled: “Rebuilding the Caribbean for a Resilient and Renewable Future.” Its authors observed that:
“…there is an opportunity to rebuild better, cleaner, and stronger. Instead of reconstructing the existing twentieth-century electricity grid, we can leapfrog ahead with twenty-first-century technologies that make the Caribbean region far less vulnerable to future storms. The key step is replacing or retrofitting the centralized electricity grid with decentralized resilient renewable power, combined with energy efficiency measures. This will bring many benefits. Thanks to plunging costs for solar, wind, and battery storage, small distributed renewable energy systems and increased efficiency would actually lower the electricity costs on the islands…”
The process of designing and building this modern electrical system could provide a needed “spark” to Puerto Rico’s economy. By reducing energy costs and increasing reliability, a new energy system could increase the competitiveness of the island for attracting industry. A massive rebuilding effort would be a large scale public works project that could be structured as a public-private partnership. Given Puerto Rico’s weak finances and inability to obtain capital, the only way such a project could be remotely feasible would be with federal subsidies and loan guarantees. But if an effort to rebuild a sustainable Puerto Rico was successfully undertaken, the island’s economic decline could be reversed.
The politics of disaster relief has made government officials sensitive to the impression that they might not be doing all they can to aid suffering people. The Trump administration, like many Americans, seemed to forget that people who live in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are American citizens. Trump discussed the logistical difficulty of delivering aid to islands that are not close to the mainland. The president also tried to shift blame to “poor local leadership” and a “lazy” population. No one should underestimate Trump’s ability to spin a message to suit his own needs. Still, that post-Katrina photograph of George W. Bush gazing out of the window of Air Force One at the destruction below continues to have political resonance. Presidents know they are judged on their ability to address emergencies. So we will see slow first response to Puerto Rico pick up steam, as food, water and medicine finally reaches the people who desperately need it.
But then what? What about recovery and reconstruction? The current grid will need to be patched together for the short run, but there is little point of throwing too much good money at the bad. Reconstruction of the island as it was will simply invite further destruction when the next storm hits. This is an opportunity to redevelop Puerto Rico and make investment in it more attractive. The scale of investment needed requires the federal government, and an effort this massive will need leadership, organizational capacity, and a selfless, public service orientation. It’s hard to believe that the current crowd in the Congress and White House are capable of meeting this challenge, but perhaps they will seize this opportunity and respond to Puerto Rico’s existential crisis with creativity and cash.