News compilation on New Cold War.org, Oct 20, 2017
‘Survival mode’ defines Puerto Rico one month after Hurricane Maria
A month after Hurricane Maria battered this mountainous stretch of central Puerto Rico, recovery remained elusive along Highway 152, where 82-year-old Carmen Diaz Lopez lives alone in a home that’s one landslide away from plummeting into the muddy creek below.
Without electricity, and without family members to care for her, she’s become dependent on the companionship of a few neighbors who stop by periodically. But a collapsed bridge has made it challenging to even communicate with her friend across the creek, so she’s lived for the most part in solitude, passing the electricity-less days singing “Ave Maria” and classic Los Panchos songs to herself, lighting candles each night so she can find the bathroom.
“I just ask the Lord to take care of me, because he’s the only one I have,” Diaz Lopez said Wednesday.
Diaz Lopez and her neighbors along kilometer 5 of this badly hit mountain road in Barranquitas municipality are among the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans still at risk as the recovery effort heads into its fifth week. Pipe water returned here in a trickle a few days ago, and the collapsed earth that blocked the road and sent muck into homes has been half-way cleared. But a phone signal is still non-existent, and residents are far from any semblance of sustainable self-sufficiency.
The situation threatens to undermine the economic and fiscal future of the island, and is already fueling a flood of Puerto Ricans leaving for the mainland. At this stage in the recovery from the Category 4 storm, many find the current state of the U.S. commonwealth — home to some 3.4 million American citizens — unthinkable.
“I just haven’t seen a situation where people don’t have access to basic services for so long,” said Martha Thompson, the Puerto Rico response coordinator for the Boston-based charity Oxfam Americas who also worked on the response to Hurricane Katrina.
Meeting at the White House with the commonwealth’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, President Donald Trump said Thursday that his administration’s response to Maria deserves a perfect “10” rating. He also drew attention to the fiscal mess in Puerto Rico that predated the hurricane, suggesting he wants repayment of any reconstruction loans to take precedence over the island’s existing $74 billion debt that pushed it into bankruptcy.
Only tenuous, provisional measures seem to be preventing a much greater humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. A government task force has restored electricity to many hospitals and healthcare facilities, but others are sustained by diesel generators that occasionally fail. (APR Energy Chairman John Campion, whose company rents the units for natural disasters, said in an interview that such generators typically have a life span of 500 hours, and the crisis has already lasted longer than that.)
About 83 per cent of residents and businesses — not just in the rural mountains, but across the island — are still without electricity.
As of Friday, one-in-three residents lacked running water, and only about half of cellular towers were operational. Meanwhile, the official death toll, currently at 49, keeps creeping higher, with 76 islanders still reported missing.
Many blame an insufficiently robust federal response, while authorities note the myriad logistical challenges that make the high-poverty island distinct from storm-battered states such as Florida or Texas.
Certainly, there have been improvements. In the days after the storm, the entire island appeared engulfed in pandemonium; the airport operated at a fraction of its normal capacity with leaky ceilings, no air conditioning or escalators; frantic islanders formed half-mile long lines for gas and diesel; and mayhem ensued on roads and highways, even in the capital, as people tried to dodge fallen trees and street lights.
This week, by contrast, the airport was back in operation, with a blast of cool air greeting new arrivals at the end of the jet bridge and slot machines in the terminals blinking and jingling. The roads around the capital have been largely cleared, as have many major highways.
But the reality remained very different in the mountains of central Puerto Rico. Back in Barranquitas, Erika Perez, 43, wondered how she would sustain her family. She lives just up the hill from Diaz Lopez with her husband, son and daughter, ages 52, 13 and 14, respectively. They have dogs, pigs and chickens, which supplied the eggs that kept the family fed during the early days after the storm, when the mudslides had completely boxed them in.
Perez said they’d been basically cut off for some 10 days, and she had worried about what would happen if her daughter’s asthma got bad.
Asked if she felt forgotten by the authorities, she gestured to a heap of trash that had been accumulating since even before the storm, insects circling. “We don’t ask for much, but at least give me that,” she said. “Help us out for sanitary purposes.”
Her husband had invested much of his time and money in plantain fields up the road, but the storm had obliterated much of the crop, and what was left had been stolen by those desperate for food. The family also ran a bar next door — frequented by Diaz Lopez, who said she went for the live music — but the prospects looked grim there, too, with no cars passing through the area.
The Puerto Rican economy was in a dire situation before the storm, and now it’s been reduced to a shadow of even that former self. Small business owners everywhere have been forced to trade their digital inventory systems and credit-card machines for old-fashioned paper and cash, and they’ve been grappling with how to keep tabs on employees.
For a QuickTake by Bloomberg on Puerto Rico’s economic and fiscal situation, click here.
“Everyone is in survival mode,” said Gustavo Velez, an economist who runs the Inteligencia Economica consulting firm in San Juan. “There’s no work, no earnings. People are buying what they need for the day.”
He said the situation will only snowball, fueling a massive exodus to the mainland, if the government can’t come up with resources and a viable plan. Governor Rossello has warned that millions could leave.
As for Diaz Lopez, she said she’ll keep looking after herself. She’s found a new apartment connected to an auto body shop up the hill and out of the path of mudslides; she’s just waiting for the owner to clear the space out so she can move in at a cost of $250 a month.
She was left alone on the island when her ex-husband died, her son was killed by a drug overdose and the last of her extended family moved to the mainland. She wondered why the authorities, local or federal, hadn’t done more for her. In the meantime, she said she knew how to do enough to stay healthy and safe during the long, dark nights.
“You’d think they’d say, ‘Here’s a woman on her own, an elderly woman, let’s go help her’,” she said, standing in the doorway of her home with her dog. “But I’ll be okay. I take life as it comes.”
Nature puts Caribbean integration to the test
ROSEAU, Dominica–It’s still easier to travel from the Caribbean to the capital cities of its former colonial powers on the other side of the Atlantic than between neighboring islands separated by mere kilometers. The colonial past of the Caribbean which Dominican politician and historian Juan Bosch described as “the imperial frontier” continues to mark its present day reality.
Integration efforts which began last century after the majority of nations in the region gained their independence are seeking to overcome the cultural, linguistic, and economic barriers inherited from centuries in the eye of the storm of global power struggles. However, the latest test of Caribbean integration came in an unexpected form: nature, with three strong hurricanes hitting the region in less than a month.
Dominica, which was battered by Hurricane Maria’s 250 kilometer per hour winds, was witness to the solidarity of neighboring countries also affected by these natural phenomena and among the first to share their resources with the sister island, where eight out of every 10 homes were left practically uninhabitable.
Support from the greater Caribbean
“Cuba and Venezuela were among the first nations to offer a substantial response, arriving here with search and rescue teams and supplies,” stated Cuban Ambassador to Dominica, Juan Carlos Frómeta, speaking to Granma.
A permanent medical mission from Cuba has been offering services on the island since the 1990s, with some 20 doctors, nurses and health technicians already based there when the hurricane hit. Just 72 hours after Maria struck, a Cubana de Aviación ATR aircraft carrying a search and rescue brigade and 10 specialists from the Henry Reeve Contingent, was among the first to touch down at a flooded Melville Hall Airport.
Later, at the beginning of October, an advanced mission traveled to Dominica to assess the possibility of expanding Cuban aid to other sectors.
Meanwhile a Cuban boat transporting humanitarian relief, two brigades of linemen and forestry workers, who will help restore the island’s power system completely destroyed by the storm and clear forests stripped bare by the force of the winds, is scheduled to arrive on October 20.
Likewise, Venezuela sent a search and rescue team, while its helicopters and planes provided vital help transporting emergency personnel in the initial days after the hurricane.
“I think, in a situation like this, we have seen a very swift response from nations from the so-called Greater Caribbean,” stated the Cuban Ambassador.
The Cuba-CARICOM (Caribbean Community) Summit, still set to take place in Antigua and Barbuda in December, will be another opportunity to continue expanding collaboration and for the emergence of new initiatives, added Frómeta. He went on to highlight the support offered Dominica by neighboring islands in the eastern Caribbean region.
Technical resources from Antigua and Barbuda, severely hit by Hurricane Irma just days before, helped to establish communication with the country during the most critical hours of the storm, which destroyed practically all communications towers on the island. Barbados’ coast guard deployed boats to transport technical personnel and supplies, while the government of Trinidad and Tobago sent helicopters to deliver equipment to remote areas, rescue the injured, and provide emergency services.
The Dominican Republic also opened its hospitals to receive emergency patients, many of whom were transported by the country’s naval forces.
In 1991, CARICOM established its Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), which includes 18 nations of the region. The CDEMA has been working on the ground since before the hurricane hit and is currently supporting reconstruction efforts in Dominica, including shelter maintenance and housing construction.
On October 13, in honor of International Day for Disaster Reduction, the agency’s executive director Ronald Jackson highlighted the importance of building regional institutional capacity and infrastructure able to adapt to climate change and increasingly severe natural disasters. “The recent impact of hurricanes Irma and María shows that we must address the vulnerabilities of the Caribbean,” added Jackson.
A regional security team
As happens in many places following large-scale natural disasters, desperation in the initial days following the disaster led to disturbances and looting by the population in Dominica. Thus, security became a key issue to ensure that aid and resources arrived and were equally distributed, above all among the most vulnerable sectors.
“Our small police force was overwhelmed by the level of destruction caused by María,” stated Superintendent of Dominica’s Police Force, Richmond Valentine speaking to Granma. “We couldn’t mobilize a single one of our vehicles; the city was impassable, flooded by river water, mud, and sand. We didn’t have any communication, electric lighting, or cell phone service,” he recalled.
Valentine highlighted the importance of the organization’s Regional Security System (RSS) to disaster response and recovery efforts. The mechanism is activated in disaster situations affecting any CARICOM member-state. Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Jamaica, Barbados and other nations within the area sent dozens of officials to Dominica just hours after the storm.
“We are responsible for security, reconstructing buildings, and the distribution and management of relief supplies,” stated Atlee Rodney, Antigua and Barbuda’s deputy commissioner of Police and commander of the RSS operation in Dominica.“It’s important that we work together as a single Caribbean,” he added. “No country can tackle these problems on its own.”
Valentine, who works directly with members of the RSS in Roseau [capital city of Dominca], rejected the notion of any kind of animosity between officials from neighboring countries and local forces. “We have done joint training in the past. We know each other,” he stated. “Their commitment to helping a sister island and willingness to remain for as long as necessary, is clear.”
Meanwhile, Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, thanked Caribbean countries for their support; noting that “on the morning of September 19, Maria tested the resolve of Dominicans,” and “our Caribbean neighbors… all have passed this test.”
Reports on Telesur:
Puerto Rico’s governor meets with Trump at White House, Oct 19, 2017
Puerto Rico residents forced to drink contaminated water, Oct 15, 2017
Agricultural recovery underway in Dominica, Oct 14, 2017
Dominica receives more international aid after Hurricane, Oct 13, 2017
Drone video shows abandoned Caribbean island of Barbuda, video on New York Times, Oct 30, 2017
The entire population of the Caribbean island of Barbuda, some 1,800 people, moved away following Hurricane Irma’s destruction of most of the island’s houses and infrastructure on September 6, 2017. The island is part of the country of Antigua and Barbuda, population 94,000.
[In constrast to Florida and Texas, mutual aid in restoring electiricty to Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria never arrived.]
‘Like going back in time’: Puerto Ricans put survival skills to use, by Caitlin Dickerson and Luis Ferré-Sadurnio, New York Times, Oct 24, 2017
Using generators, rationing and even bonfires, Puerto Ricans have had to get creative to survive weeks without power or regular water and food after Hurricane Maria.
… Lorel Cubano, the director of a local nonprofit, said most of the aid the neighborhood had received was from private citizens and celebrities like Luis Fonsi. “The government hasn’t arrived here,” she said.
Contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electricity system awarded to tiny, inexperienced company that donated to Trump election campaign, Telesur, Oct 24, 2017
Following large-scale natural disasters, it is customary to use large companies which are generally better equipped to handle the totality of the destruction. Yet a small private-equity firm which has a full-time staff of two employees was chosen. And see: $300 million Puerto Rico recovery contract awarded to tiny utility company linked to major Trump donor, The Daily Beast, Oct 24, 2017
Puerto Rico cancels Whitefish Energy contract to rebuild power lines, New York Times, oct 29, 2017
Facing withering criticism from members of Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the governor of Puerto Rico moved on Sunday to cancel a $300 million contract awarded to a small Montana company to rebuild part of the island’s battered power grid…
Some stores, medical centers, restaurants and a fortunate few private residences are running on generators, but most of the island’s 3.4 million people are plunged into darkness after sunset. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as Prepa, is generating just 30 percent of its normal output, the Puerto Rican government said. The power grid is in such bad shape that the power authority does not know exactly how many of its customers are without power. The authority has estimated that repairs will cost at least $1 billion…
Puerto Rico’s hurricane crisis has only just begun
By Eric Levitz, New York Magazine, Oct 24, 2017 (full text)
Puerto Rico is still powerless. More than four weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall, roughly 79 per cent of the island has no electricity. The territory’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has promised to restore power to 95 per cent of the island by Christmas. U.S. officials see that timeline as absurdly optimistic.
As of this writing, Puerto Rico’s government has put the number of people directly killed by Hurricane Maria on the island at 48. But the number who have been killed by the (literal) darkness that the storm left in its wake may be in the hundreds. Puerto Rico’s population is disproportionately elderly, and its elderly population is disproportionately impoverished. In this context, one would expect weeks without electricity — amid high temperatures and limited access to water — to be more fatal than the Category 4 winds that Maria brought ashore in September. And Vox’s examination of local news reports since Hurricane Maria has found 81 deaths linked directly or indirectly to the storm, hundreds more with causes unknown, and reports of 69 people missing.
The blackout will deprive Puerto Ricans of 20th-century comforts like fans, refrigerators, and televisions. But it will also hobble relief efforts aimed at securing the population even more basic goods: The island’s water-treatment facilities require electricity to fuel their pumps and filtration systems. It is nigh impossible to run all the territory’s water treatment plants at full capacity with generators alone. This is one reason why one million Puerto Ricans still lack access to clean drinking water. If this state of affairs persists deep into 2018, Hurricane Maria may indirectly kill more Puerto Ricans — from heatstroke, dehydration, or water contamination — between now and the middle of next year than it has already.
President Trump’s response to the island’s crisis has been at turns callous, clueless, and inept. But as Vox’s Yochi Dreazen explains, Puerto Rico’s electricity crisis is rooted in flaws in its power grid for which Trump can scarcely be blamed:
Puerto Rico’s biggest power generators are on the south of the island, but most of its inhabitants live on the north side, primarily in San Juan. There are four high-capacity transmission lines that carry power from the south to the north, and they pass through the center part of the island, the region Marin calls home. The problem is that central Puerto Rico is mountainous, full of huge swaths of thick forest, and mainly reachable only by driving on terrifyingly narrow dirt roads.
… The second major problem is a financial one. PREPA, the island’s widely despised electric utility, hasn’t done any major upgrades to the grid in decades. The median age of the island’s power plants is 44 years, more than double the normal industry standard of 18 years, according to a report from FiveThirtyEight. The plants are so old that it’s hard to find replacement parts when individual pieces of equipment break down.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration could have done far more to mitigate Maria’s harms. The White House had several days notice that a Category 4 storm was likely to hit Puerto Rico — and that the island’s electrical grid was unlikely to survive such an onslaught. The federal government had time to deploy satellite phones to the island, to avoid the communications blackout that isolated remote areas from the territory’s government. It could have delivered reserves of food, fuel, and water to the island in advance of the storm, allowing local officials to spread these vital resources throughout the territory, before the hurricane lay waste to much of its trucking infrastructure. Instead, our president did almost nothing in the lead-up to the storm — and went on a four-day golf vacation in its aftermath.
More important, there’s more that our federal government could be doing right now. Just to restore the grid to its (ill-designed, vulnerable) pre-Maria state will cost $5 billion, according to the island’s government. But PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, is, itself, $9 billion in debt. This will represent a massive financial problem for the island once the recovery is over. And there are signs that the utility’s insolvency is already creating a humanitarian problem by delaying the restoration of electricity.
PREPA is part of the American Public Power Association (APPA), a trade group of U.S. municipal utility companies. Members of APPA have access to a mutual assistance program, which would allow Puerto Rico to call on the aid of mainland utilities during a time of crisis, with payment deferred to a later date. Florida and Texas recently activated this assistance program to expedite their hurricane recovery efforts. But PREPA has declined to do the same because it isn’t sure that it can afford to pay the other utilities back.
Instead, PREPA has entrusted Puerto Rico’s paralyzed electrical grid to a two-year-old Montana company that had just two full-time employees as of one month ago. As the Washington Post reports:
The company, Whitefish Energy, said last week that it had signed a $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to repair and reconstruct large portions of the island’s electrical infrastructure. The contract is the biggest yet issued in the troubled relief effort. Whitefish said Monday that it has 280 workers in the territory, using linemen from across the country, most of them as subcontractors, and that the number grows on average from 10 to 20 people a day.
… The unusual decision to instead hire a tiny for-profit company is drawing scrutiny from Congress and comes amid concerns about bankrupt Puerto Rico’s spending as it seeks to provide relief to its 3.4 million residents, the great majority of whom remain without power a month after the storm. “The fact that there are so many utilities with experience in this and a huge track record of helping each other out, it is at least odd why [the utility] would go to Whitefish,” said Susan F. Tierney, a former senior official at the Energy Department and state regulatory agencies. “I’m scratching my head wondering how it all adds up.”
Congress authorized $4.9 billion in loans for the Puerto Rican government in a broader hurricane and wildfire relief package earlier this month. Beyond the unseemly decision to provide a catastrophically indebted territory with a loan — instead of a no-strings-attached aid package — this sum is inadequate to Puerto Rico’s needs. Were Congress to make more funds available, it’s possible that the restoration of the electrical grid could be expedited. At the very least, federal funds could prevent PREPA from defraying the costs of repairs by jacking up Puerto Ricans’ electric bills, once power is restored. The island’s residents already pay some of the highest utility bills in the United States, despite their far lower median earnings. In the environment of high unemployment and economic instability that is sure to persist in the recovery’s wake, the last thing the island’s residents will need is a higher cost of living.
But, at least for the moment, there’s little sign that Washington sees an urgent need to increase aid to Puerto Rico. Last week, as one million American citizens on the island struggled to secure potable water, Trump gave his administration’s relief efforts in Puerto Rico a “10 out of 10”.