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Puerto Rico After Maria: Owning the Problem

Photo by The National Guard | CC BY 2.0

The failure to treat our colony Puerto Rico as we treated suburban Houston is no accident and it brings sharply in focus how American Exceptionalism makes exceptions to those not white-skinned and upper class. Following the debacle of Katrina, where working poor blacks were hit hardest by poor regional planning and investment, the sequel in the Caribbean shows how ruthless capitalists can be to those low on their ladder. The “external costs” of resource exploitation of the planet include the increasingly powerful storms that run wild over intentionally ruined mangrove swamps in Louisiana, and wipe away decaying above ground electrical infrastructure in Puerto Rico, that would have been replaced wit modern underground systems in a gated community.

Houston was built without zoning or enough simple land-use planning to build expressways above flood waters or to keep areas below water reservoirs free of housing. By luck of the draw this area was the first of three consecutive natural disasters and therefore had the undivided attention of federal resources. The fact that upper middle class homeowners were tricked into buying floodplain property says quite a bit about their understanding of the natural world.

Florida was hit by a very strong storm, luckily its path was sufficiently westward to limit damage to heavily populated areas on the east coast. Electrical power was restored in less than 2 days on the east coast and a few days later on the harder hit west coasts. Thousands of utility boom trucks were assembled from all over the US to assist. Lineman from WI were on the way to Florida and were told to turn around, because so much help had been received they were not needed.

Why were these trucks not put on Roll-On Roll-Off ships in Jacksonville ( a major auto import portal) and sent to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands?

After 4 weeks of no electricity to power wells and sewage treatment plants we have been told that part of the problem is that it takes at least 5 days to get a barge of power poles to the islands. How long does it take to decide they are needed?

Some critical thinking is needed for the rebuilding of all of these disaster areas. Can we build them to new standards, recognizing new flood plains with rising seas, buried utilities to protect from stronger winds, stronger roofs to prevent blow offs? Can we implement alternative energy and micro grids to gain strength from distributed networks and multiple small sources?

Most importantly, can we recognize the need of citizens of all colors and classes to the same protections?

Believers in market solutions decry planning as socialist and restrictive of freedom. Of course their freedom is based on profits from artificially cheap labor and materials, whose value is skewed by currency differentials, trade policies, and local political oppression opposed from afar (in Puerto Rico’s case a banana republic we own outright).

Real land use planning in Houston would return the lowlands to the sea and rebuild housing to the north on higher ground.

Repair of the mangrove swamps in Louisiana requires filling in the numerous oil industry canals that destroyed the sponge affect of a swamp. Fossil fuel accelerated climate change doubled down on a fossil fuel industry ruined natural defense of the shore-lands. The complete rebuilding of our Caribbean colony will require a building code that can handle 150 mph winds.

We have the knowledge and skills and resources to do these things together. We need to plan, and we need to transcend our bigoted national mindset that these darkies don’t deserve our best. If the “party of the people” wishes to stand up and move beyond whining about interference in an election they tried hard not to lose, it could develop a winning approach based on the idea that peace, health, and prosperity for all is the goal. The context must be sustainable economic development that sees the problems we face as opportunities for a transition to a new society. We need to expose and reverse the policies that the capitalists insist on being free to impose on us. But that approach requires acknowledging that we have found the problem, and we own it.

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