Puerto Rico: Hurricane Maria and aftermath

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The Many Roots of Puerto Rico’s Crisis
After mounting protests, Ricardo Rosselló has resigned as governor of Puerto Rico, putting the territory’s most immediate political crisis to rest. But what the US territory really needs is an accord with officials on the mainland to start addressing structural issues that have been impeding economic growth and formal employment.
By Anne O. Krueger
(Project Syndicate) Puerto Rico is once again in crisis, both politically and economically. A United States territory with more than three million people, it has a larger population than many US states. But its population and real (inflation-adjusted) output have been falling since 2006. More than half of native-born Puerto Ricans alive today have left the island, most of them for the US mainland. The territory’s per capita income is around half that of the poorest US state, Mississippi.
While the Puerto Rican economy reached dire straits in 2016, its problems go back much further. For the past decade, successive governments promising balanced budgets have consistently been forced to borrow after their estimates proved overly optimistic. Eventually, Puerto Rico was unable to meet its debt-servicing obligations. By 2015, its per capita debt was more than $16,000, compared to the 50 states’ average of $1,473, and its government still had large unfunded obligations.
Then, in June 2016, the US Congress passed PROMESA (the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act), which allowed Puerto Rico to enter quasi-bankruptcy proceedings under the supervision of a newly created Financial Oversight and Management Board. The FOMB would approve the territory’s budgets. In 2017, the island defaulted on its debt, and there have been legal battles ever since.

27 July
15 Days of Fury: How Puerto Rico’s Government Collapsed
Simmering frustrations over disaster response, a weak economy and graft scandals turned into mass protests that toppled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló
His dramatic ouster, and the furious rejection of the corruption that Puerto Ricans perceive as deeply rooted in their government, shook the island to its core and challenged a long-entrenched political system. All the more remarkable was that the people who made it happen came from outside the establishment that, until now, comfortably ruled this island of 3.2 million.

26 July
Puerto Rico’s Joyful and Committed Days of Protest
By Emily Witt
(Mew Yorker) The crisis that led to the protests began on July 10th, when the F.B.I. indicted two former high-ranking members of Rosselló’s administration on charges of corruption. Three days later, the Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit news organization, released more than eight hundred pages of leaked text messages sent between Rosselló and several men who referred to themselves as “brothers,” many of whom are sitting or former government officials. Puerto Ricans are used to corrupt government officials, but the chats indicated that they were amoral, too. In fewer than three months of conversations, the governor and his associates used sexist and homophobic slurs against the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz; a former New York City councilwoman, Melissa Mark-Viverito; and the singer Ricky Martin.

22 July
Everything You Need to Know About the Massive Demonstrations in Puerto Rico
By Matt Stieb and Benjamin Hart
(New York) Monday marked ten straight days of protests in the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico, as a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands called for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who is embroiled in competing scandals over bigoted text messages and a corruption probe that ended in the arrest of two top administration officials. Fed from feelings of exploitation in the wake of Hurricane Maria and the debt crisis that has loomed over the island for five years…. Below, a primer on the territory’s political crisis as it paces toward its second week.
The scandals have aggravated a half-decade of crisis on the island. Already struggling with high unemployment and back-breaking debt, the island was devastated in 2017 by Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands and left Puerto Ricans waiting for power to return for up to 11 months. In the aftermath of the storm, the island’s population has continued to dwindle as more and more people leave for the mainland. Rosselló’s management of the hurricane’s aftermath — particularly his decision to sign over $300 million to a little-known Montana company to supervise cleanup — was widely criticized.
Meanwhile, a longstanding sense of grievance among Puerto Rico residents over the island’s neo-colonial economic mismanagement has continued to fester. In 2014, bonds issued by Puerto Rico were reduced to junk status after credit agencies deemed the government unable to pay off its debt. To avoid having San Juan pay its debt with savings, Congress appointed an oversight board to balance the budget. But the board, known as la junta de control on the island, is deplored for exceeding its oversight responsibilities.
As New York’s Andrew Rice wrote in a report on the debt crisis: Critics “decry both the impact of the cuts and the fact that much of the resulting savings would go to repay creditors, including the hedge funds, many of which bought bonds at a deep discount after Puerto Rico defaulted on its debts.”

18 July
Poll: Two-thirds of country favors statehood for Puerto Rico
Two in three Americans support statehood for the island of Puerto Rico, according to a Gallup Poll released Thursday morning.
The 66 percent support for admitting the island as the 51st state is consistent with polling dating to the early 1960s. Support is highest among Democrats, younger voters, and nonwhite voters. But while nearly half of Republicans also back the proposal, the party’s leaders do not.
President Donald Trump, who has disparaged Puerto Rico’s leadership and faced criticism for the federal government’s slow response to devastating Hurricane Maria, has said he is an “absolute no” on Puerto Rico statehood. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said granting the island statehood and full representation in Congress would be “full-bore socialism.”

17 June
Mitch McConnell Calls Representative Democracy for Puerto Rico and D.C. ‘Full-Bore Socialism’
(New York) On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted a video of a recent interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, in which he claimed that House Democrats “would turn us into a country we’ve never been.” For example, a country that resembles something closer to representative democracy for all its citizens. McConnell explained his thinking as it relates to the Democratic wish of granting congressional seats to the people of Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico:
“They plan to make …  — Puerto Rico a state, that would give them two more new Democratic senators. And as a former Supreme Court clerk yourself, you’ve surely noticed that they plan to expand the Supreme Court. So this is full bore socialism on the march in the House. And yeah, as long as I’m the majority leader of the Senate, none of that stuff is going anywhere.”
Whether McConnell is defending against “full-bore socialism” or the advent of (almost) full representative democracy for millions of Americans, the inclusion of Puerto Rico and D.C. in Congress would cause profound shifts to the power balance of the parties — not to mention the Electoral College. Four additional seats in the Senate that skew Democratic could cancel out the Republican advantage of more representation with fewer votes: In the 2014 midterm, the 46 Democrats received 20 million more votes than the 54 Republicans in the chamber. In the House, Puerto Rico would end up with around seven electoral votes and D.C. with one. On population level alone, the district and the territory are certainly worthy of membership. D.C., at 702,455, has more people than Vermont or Wyoming. With a pre-Maria population of almost 3.2 million, Puerto Rico is home to more Americans than 21 states.

10 May
House passes Trump-opposed disaster-relief bill with more funding for Puerto Rico
The House overwhelmingly passed a $19.1 billion bill Friday to provide federal aid to communities and military installations hit hard by natural disasters, ignoring President Trump’s opposition to the package over its assistance for Puerto Rico.
Hours after Trump told Republicans to reject the disaster relief bill, the House backed millions of dollars for Midwest farms ravaged by flooding, Southern states still struggling after tornadoes, Western locales devastated by wildfires and other regions affected since 2017. Thirty-four Republicans joined all of the chamber’s Democrats to pass the sweeping relief package, 257 to 150. Some of Trump’s most loyal conservative supporters broke with the president, favoring their districts’ needs over the president’s demands. Among them were Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and lawmakers from Nebraska, Georgia and Texas.

17 April
A long read and very discouraging.
The McKinsey Way to Save an Island Why is a bankrupt Puerto Rico spending more than a billion dollars on expert advice?
By Andrew Rice With Luis Valentin Ortiz
(New York) Since 2016, Puerto Rico has been buffeted by a natural disaster and several overlapping, man-made catastrophes. Its government is bankrupt and owes $74 billion to bondholders: a staggering sum that amounts to 99 percent of the island’s gross national product, or $25,000 for each of its 3 million men, women, and children. It faces a vociferously hostile president, a stalemated and colonial relationship with Congress, entrenched local political dysfunction, and a bunch of angry creditors — most notably, a group of hedge funds that speculate in distressed debt and are fighting for every last penny they think they’re owed.
Under a law Congress passed in 2016, the island’s finances are overseen by a federally appointed board, which hired McKinsey as its “strategic consultant.” … In October, the board issued a 148-page fiscal plan that touches nearly every sector of the Puerto Rican government. Following McKinsey’s guidance, it laid out numerous service reductions, agency consolidations, and “right-sizing” measures — the plan’s euphemism for job cuts.
In D.C., Democrats like presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren were excoriating McKinsey for having “paved the way for many of Puerto Rico’s creditors to receive handsome payouts.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration was maneuvering to cut federal disaster aid to the financially fragile island, a campaign that culminated in April with a Twitter tantrum accusing Puerto Rico’s “grossly incompetent” elected leaders of “foolishly or corruptly” spending the money the territory had already received.
Trump is vehemently opposed to giving Puerto Rico the $82 billion it anticipates, and if the figure is lower, the economic stimulus will be smaller. Second, whatever the size of the boost to tax revenue, how it’s allotted will be determined in court. Democrats and Republicans in Congress are currently at loggerheads about how much, or how little, relief to offer…
… Among the many mind-blowing figures in the fiscal plan, one stands out: the $1.5 billion earmarked over the next six years for costs related to the restructuring process itself — more than a billion of which will go to lawyers, bankers, and consultants, McKinsey included.
All those fees are being footed by the taxpayers of Puerto Rico, which is far poorer than any U.S. state, with a median household income of less than $20,000 a year. Its economy was shrinking even before the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria, among the deadliest storms to ever hit U.S. territory.

26 January
Trump White House stonewalls as Puerto Rico aid runs dry
The president’s theories about how the storm-wracked island is using disaster relief money could have dire consequences for its residents.
Additional food aid for the island’s poor will soon be exhausted without supplemental funds opposed by the White House. At the same time, billions in community development appropriations have yet to leave Washington — a year after being approved by Congress to assist in the recovery from Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

2018

September
The Perfect Storm: How Climate Change and Wall Street Almost Killed Puerto Rico
President Trump recently deemed his Hurricane Maria response “incredibly successful,” “unprecedented” and an “unsung success.” Nearly 3,000 people died. This is how it happened.
(Rolling Stone) It has been a year since Hurricane Maria wiped out Puerto Rico. If you drop onto the island for a visit, the recovery looks almost complete. The San Juan airport is crowded, the cruise ships are docking on schedule, and the piña coladas are flowing in Old San Juan. The lights work and your cellphone gets pretty good reception. If you ignore a few dead traffic signals and bent road signs, you might even be able to fool yourself into thinking nothing ever happened.
But Puerto Rico has not recovered. In fact, it’s arguably as close to collapse as it has ever been. The power is on and the roads are open, but if you look closely, the entire island is held together with duct tape and baling wire. Tens of thousands of people are still living under the blue tarps that were installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on houses that had their roofs blown off during the storm. Engineers are still discovering bridges that are in danger of collapsing, and every time it rains, new leaks are found in concrete foundations. Unlike, say, New York after Hurricane Sandy, there is no sense that the rebuilding is guaranteed, or that there is a better future ahead.
The tragedy was also compounded by a slow, weak and disorganized response by FEMA, which left many people without food, water and decent shelter for months. Two weeks after the storm, President Trump visited for less than five hours, threw a few rolls of paper towels to a crowd and provoked a Twitter fight with the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz (after Trump called her “nasty,” she went on TV proudly wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word and said, “What’s nasty is showing your back to the Puerto Rican people”). And even now, after the true scale of the catastrophe is clear, Trump remains tone-deaf to the suffering of the people in Puerto Rico, recently claiming his administration’s response “was an incredible, unsung success” despite the fact that nearly 3,000 Americans were killed.

Puerto Rico a year after Hurricane Maria
Trump’s Twitter Storm shows contempt for human rights.
(Amnesty International) A year after Maria, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in almost a century, and in the middle of a new hurricane season, storms are a hard topic to avoid on the island. Everyone talks about them. In San Juan, the capital, some high-rise apartment buildings whose windows were blown out are still boarded up. Across the island tens of thousands are still living under blue tarps; canopies placed over people’s roofs intended as a temporary measure, not a permanent feature of the island’s skylines. But at a time when residents need to grieve, the US President Donald Trump has stirred a different, but just as toxic storm, on his Twitter feed.

  • Hurricane Maria, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, made landfall on 20 September 2017. It compounded destruction caused by hurricane Irma just weeks before.
  • More than 44% of the population of Puerto Rico lives in poverty, compared to the national US average of approximately 12%.
  • On 28 August 2018, Puerto Rico’s Governor revised the official death count from 64 to 2,975. Prior to that various other studies had estimated the death count to be even higher. US President Trump has denied the numbers.
  • A year after Maria, tens of thousands in Puerto Rico are still living under blue tarps, designed as temporary roofs.
  • After a Federal Court decision on 30 August, Puerto Ricans temporarily housed in the USA lost FEMA’s housing support on 15 September.

Just weeks after a George Washington University study lead to the Puerto Rican authorities revising the death toll attributable to Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975, the US President called the response to Hurricane Maria “an unsung success”. A week before the one-year anniversary of Maria’s devastation, he took his Twitter account to deny this revised number of deaths and suggested the US Democratic party were behind falsifying the numbers. Global media and Twitter exploded back at President Trump.

13 September
Donald Trump Doesn’t Care About Puerto Rico
Recent comments by the president that serve to erase the severity of Hurricane Maria’s death toll on the island confirm that he’s never really seen the disaster as anything more than a conspiracy against him
(The Atlantic) On Wednesday morning Donald Trump tweeted: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” referring to the most recent study finding that 2,975 people died as a result of the storm. “When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000,” he continued. In a follow-up tweet, he picked up the thread. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” he said.
Trump tries to rewrite history on Maria as Hurricane Florence approaches
The president has made repeated claims about the success of his administration response to last year’s deadly storm in Puerto Rico.
Facing renewed criticism of his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, President Donald Trump lashed out, grousing about his administration’s “unappreciated great job” on the Puerto Rico recovery – despite the remoteness of the island, poor access to electricity and the “totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan.”
“We are ready for the big one that is coming!” an exuberant Trump concluded on Wednesday, as a new storm spun toward the East Coast.

6 June
Trump praises hurricane response amid demands for Maria death toll investigation
(Politico) President Donald Trump praised his administration’s response to last year’s devastating storms even as thousands of Puerto Rican evacuees face eviction from temporary shelters and the island remains partly without power nine months after Hurricane Maria.
Meeting with his Cabinet and disaster agency officials on Wednesday for a briefing on hurricane season, which began June 1, Trump said his administration “leapt into action to coordinate the response” to last year’s storms.
As he spoke, Puerto Ricans displaced by Maria marched on Capitol Hill demanding housing aid and Democratic lawmakers, led by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called for an investigation of the response and the death toll from Maria.
“Will Congress yet again do nothing? Will President Trump yet again do nothing?” Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “If, God forbid, another hurricane hits that island they will have blood on their hands.”

2017

23 December
How politics screwed Puerto Rico out of billions in disaster aid
The hurricane-wracked island was denied billions in extra Medicaid funds. Now Republicans and Democrats are sniping over who’s to blame.
On Wednesday night, as Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his top lieutenants struggled to pass the disaster aid package — as well as a funding bill to keep the government open — House Majority Whip Steve Scalise reached out to Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) with an offer: Would Democrats back the disaster supplemental if Republicans added billions in Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico?
At that point, Scalise and other GOP leaders were in a bind. They didn’t know if they could pass the disaster aid bill because Texas and Florida lawmakers wanted more money for their states. Members from those delegations were threatening to bring down legislation to keep the government open, triggering a politically embarrassing shutdown for Republicans since they control the Congress and White House.
In the end, Velazquez, who was born in Puerto Rico and has been working to get more federal funding for the island territory, turned down the offer. That decision has set off fierce partisan finger-pointing, while denying hurricane-wracked Puerto Rico of at least $4.6 billion in extra money to provide Medicaid to poor residents, according to Republicans.
Democrats counter that Republicans should have just put the money in the bill in the first place without all the political maneuvering.
They also hope that Senate Democrats can add more money for Puerto Rico into the package. The Senate will take up the legislation when it returns from the holiday break in January.

14 October
Puerto Rico raises Hurricane Maria death toll to 48
(ABC News) The number could increase as the medical examiner continues to review all deaths that occurred in hospitals on the U.S. island territory around the time that the powerful hurricane hit, according to Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Public Security Hector Pesquera.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said about 85 percent of the island was still without power Saturday. Meanwhile, 42 percent of cell phone customers in Puerto Rico don’t have service and 36 percent of residents still don’t have access to safe drinking water. See video: Trump to Puerto Rico: ‘We’ll be there’

12 October
Trump threatens to abandon Puerto Rico recovery effort
President Trump served notice Thursday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Declaring the U.S. territory’s electrical grid and infrastructure to have been a “disaster before hurricanes,” Trump wrote Thursday that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate to the island for its recovery efforts and that relief workers will not stay “forever.”
Three weeks after Maria made landfall, much of Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million people, remains without power. Residents struggle to find clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine, and commerce is slow, with many businesses closed.
During a visit last week, the president tossed rolls of paper towels at local residents as if shooting baskets, drawing scorn from local leaders. He also complained that the recovery efforts had “thrown our budget a little out of whack,” and noted that the death toll was lower than the “real catastrophe” of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005.

26 September
America’s Natural Disaster Response Is Its Own Disaster
After three major hurricanes, FEMA is facing its costliest challenge ever. Congress can’t just throw money at the problem. It’s time for reform.
Crisis in Puerto Rico: Most of the U.S. territory is without power and running water after Hurricanes Irma and Maria knocked out large portions of its infrastructure, leaving hospitals struggling to care for patients and families on the mainland waiting for news about their loved ones. The island’s wildlife are also in trouble, with researchers working to save a unique colony of rhesus macaques after the storms destroyed much of Puerto Rico’s vegetation. The devastation makes aid an urgent priority, and it’s too early to say whether the federal government’s response measures up
US won’t waive shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico relief
(The Hill) The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declined the request to waive the Jones Act, which limits shipping between coasts to U.S.-flagged vessels, according to Reuters. DHS waived the act following hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit the mainland U.S.The agency has in the past waived the rule to allow cheaper and more readily-available foreign vessels to supply goods to devastated areas. But DHS said Tuesday that waiving the act for Puerto Rico would not help the U.S. island territory due to damaged ports preventing ships from docking.
‘People are starting to die’: Distribution chaos snarls effort to aid desperate Puerto Ricans

TIME: Maria’s Destruction Across the Caribbean (Photos)

23 September
Fears of dam collapse add to Puerto Rico’s misery after hurricane
(Reuters) – Puerto Rico’s governor met with mayors from around the ravaged island on Saturday after surveying damage to an earthen dam in the northwestern part of the U.S. territory that was threatening to collapse from flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Some 70,000 people who live downstream from the compromised dam, forming a lake on the rain-swollen Guajataca River, were under order to evacuate, with the structure in danger of bursting at any time.

21 September
Hurricane Maria churns through Caribbean as ravaged Puerto Rico takes stock of an ‘island destroyed’
Puerto Rico gets its first full look at staggering damage left by the strongest storm to hit the island in more than 80 years.
Search-and-rescue efforts on this storm-ravaged island redoubled Thursday as residents took stock of the devastation left by Hurricane Maria, which continued to plague the U.S. territory in the form of dangerous flash floods even as its core drifted northwest to deliver a weaker but still punishing blow to the Dominican Republic.
The powerful storm knocked out power to the entire island and felled cellphone towers, leaving many residents unable to call for help or communicate with family members. Downed trees blocked roadways, some of which were turned into fast-flowing, muddy rivers. The obstacles complicated efforts to assess the full scope of damage, though authorities are already estimating that the potential cost could to reach into the billions.
Puerto Rico battered by Hurricane Maria: ‘Devastation – it’s everywhere’
Worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years felled trees and smashed buildings
Governor’s spokesman describes scene of ‘total devastation’
After hours of hurricane-force winds and torrential rain, Puerto Ricans emerged from hurricane shelters on Thursday morning to find that their island was still under threat from landslides, flash floods and crippled water and electricity systems.

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