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Puerto Rico: Ruined Infrastructure and a Refugee Crisis

Photo by NASA’s Earth Observatory | CC BY 2.0

Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico in September-October 2017. The impact of these storms was great, but greater still are the convulsions on the island long after the storms had passed over. Puerto Rico’s infrastructure remains in tatters, with the power grid still largely dysfunctional and basic institutions such as schools and hospitals on life support. Not surprisingly, large numbers of Puerto Ricans—who are citizens of the United States—have moved to the mainland. The Centre for Puerto Rican Studies (Hunter College, New York) estimates that of a population of 3.5 million, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans will make this journey. Already, 130,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida since October.

Towns and States in the mainland U.S. that are already home to Puerto Ricans have welcomed thousands more since the storms of this year. In Holyoke, Massachusetts, for instance, hundreds of Puerto Ricans have already arrived to join their families. There is little indication that these people will return to the island. Betty Medina Lichtenstein of Enlace de Familias says that it is the elderly who are likely to return, while the younger families seem to want to stay on.

The arrival of thousands of families into a State such as Massachusetts has meant that a thousand additional students have already been enrolled in Massachusetts’ public schools. School officials say that they are sympathetic to the plight of these refugees who have fled a devastated island with its educational infrastructure in a shambles.

Schools yet to reopen

Of Puerto Rico’s 1,113 schools, only 119 have reopened. The teachers’ union, Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, has suggested that the government has slowed down rebuilding of schools in order to push for their privatisation. They say that the plans for the rebuilding of Puerto Rico are similar to what was done in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when schools fired teachers and created a network of private charter schools. The Federación worries that much the same will happen in Puerto Rico. The failure to reopen schools is one sign of such a plan.

In early November, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher in San Juan. Members of the Federación marched outside the Department of Education to demand a seat at the table. It was not offered to them. Betsy DeVos and Julia Keleher did not talk to the teachers. Julia Keleher had already been pushing a plan to privatise the island’s schools, and the storms gave her and Betsy DeVos the opportunity to do so with minimal resistance. The storm, said Julia Keleher, gave the island a “real opportunity to press the reset button”. Privatisation, she suggested to a local paper, “makes sense”. About the teachers’ unions, she said that “they can go out and protest in the streets, but that doesn’t change the fact that we can’t go back to life being the same as it was before the hurricane”.

Puerto Rico and Cuba

Two U.S. Congressmen, Kevin McCarthy and Steny Hoyer, visited Puerto Rico in November to assess the situation. They found Puerto Rico “in a state of frenzied recovery”, but with people cut off by destroyed roads and fallen electric lines, with little food and little medicine and “hope for a swift recovery even scarcer”. They pledged to fight for more resources for the island to ensure not only that it can be rebuilt but also that it can withstand the next storm.

Meanwhile, a United Nations team went to Cuba at around the same time to assess the damage and recovery there. It found that the devastation was comparable to that experienced by Puerto Rico, but that the recovery had been swift. Voluntary teams rushed in to rebuild the collapsed infrastructure and the state provided insurance to agriculturalists and homeowners who had suffered damage. A decade ago, Cuba had rebuilt its power system into a series of 1,800 decentralised diesel and fuel-oil fired electric plants. The microgrid was quickly restored to full power a week after the hurricane. It is a system that has been opposed by private monopoly power companies.

Power grid collapse

In the second week of November, when the power grid should have been functional, it went down completely. The blackout was indication enough that matters could get worse for the residents. Reports from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) suggested that 40 per cent of the grid had been repaired. But after this blackout, the grid collapsed to 18 per cent, later recovering to 47 per cent in a few days. For nearly seven weeks, the residents of Puerto Rico have been living on generators and solar panels. This includes the few schools that are open. The Puerto Rican government had chosen a small firm from Montana that had close connections to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. This sweetheart contract earned Whitefish, the Montana firm, $300 million to repair the collapsed grid. It turned out that Whitefish had no experience in such matters. It charged Puerto Rico $319 per hour for the work of a lineman but paid the workers only $63 per hour, the rest going to the coffers of Whitefish. When news broke of such malfeasance, the government had to break its contract with Whitefish.

Death toll

Meanwhile, controversy continues over the death toll from the storm. The government says that the total death toll is 55. However, Puerto Rican officials now say that the number is likely to be 472. But even this is a deflated figure, since there is now evidence that the government encouraged the cremation of bodies of people who died during the storm. The reason given was that without power, the bodies could not be refrigerated. But they were not all tallied towards the storm and post-storm death. High temperatures, lack of clean water and spreading bacteria have taken hundreds of lives that have not been registered as part of the death toll for the storm and its aftermath. Funeral home managers point out that the numbers given by the government are not correct. Given their own challenges, hospitals have few resources to provide accurate counts.

Doctors are worried about the particularly vulnerable population of the elderly and the newborn. With stagnant water around the island and with widespread power failure, there are worries about the Zika virus spread by mosquitoes as well as leptospirosis that would have a dangerous impact on pregnant women and newborn children. Generators from the U.S. government and solar arrays from Tesla have been able to help the hospitals in certain areas, but health clinics and hospitals in the rural interior remain in distress.

Decline in population

Puerto Rico’s population has been declining over the past two decades. From 2005 to 2015, a staggering 10 per cent of the population—446,000 people—moved to the U.S. mainland. There is an expectation that an equal number will leave the island over the next few months. The same thing happened to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The city has since been remoulded as a playground for tourists and the rich. The U.S. government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has created a programme to transport Puerto Ricans to the mainland. The island, cynics say, is being prepared to be converted into a tourist resort, with “excess” inhabitants relocated.

This story originally appeared in Frontline (India).

 

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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