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By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Let me start by expressing my exasperation: If the Twitter hive mind is representative of the thinking of the political class on the natural disaster in Puerto Rico — although, as we shall see, there is very little about natural disasters that is natural — then the country is in terrible trouble; in general, Hurricane Maria is being used as the latest stick to beat the administration dog, and nobody is proposing concrete alternatives to what the administration is doing that would improve the situation of the Puerto Rican people. (To be fair, Clinton proposed sending an unfit for purpose hospital ship, which somebody in the administration with an eye for optics promptly did.) Yglesias, for example, focuses on Trump’s failings as a man and a President, rather than using his undoubted wonkish skills to propose an alternative plan. To the extent the political class focuses on operations at all, it’s at the level of “Treat Puerto Rico like D-Day!” or “If America can put a man on the moon, we can help Puerto Rico!” One likes a can-do attitude, but one can’t help feeling that these hot takes are a bit light on detail.
With that said, here’s a handy dashboard from the Puerto Rican goverment that shows the status of various systems on the island. In this post, I’m going to focus on the two systems that are in the worst shape: Power, at 5% coverage of the island, and water, where coverage differs by region: Metro, 57%; Norte, 29%; Oeste, 20%; Sur, 67%; and Este, 50%. But first, I’m going to look at one factor that differentiates the “natural” disaster of Maria in Puerto Rico from others on the mainland; then I’ll show how that factor affects the power system, and then cascades to affect the water supply.
That one factor is, of course, finance. One difference between New Orleans (Katrina), Florida (Irma), and Texas (Harvey) on the one hand, and Puerto Rico (Maria), on the other, is that only Puerto Rico is under an austerity regime, imposed during the Obama administration. José A. Laguarta Ramírez described this regime (PROMESA) at Naked Capitalism in 2016:
The U.S. House of Representatives approved PROMESA on the evening of June 9, following a strong endorsement by President Barack Obama. The bill, which would also impose and allow court-supervised restructuring of part of the island’s $73 billion debt, now awaits consideration by the Senate…. Puerto Rico is not the only place, under the global regime of austerity capitalism to face predatory creditors and the imposition of unelected rulers —as illustrated by cases like Argentina, Greece, and post-industrial U.S. cities such as Flint, Mich.— but its century-old colonial status has made it particularly vulnerable and defenseless.
The House vote followed a concerted, carefully timed media push by the Democratic establishment, on the premise that “despite its flaws” PROMESA represents a bipartisan compromise that is, in Obama’s words, “far superior to the status quo.”
ROMESA’s oversight board, which will be staffed by San Juan and Washington insiders with the bondholders’ best interests at heart, is sure to continue to impose measures that have already slashed much-needed social services.
Of course! Austerity! Why did nobody think of this before? Mark Weisbrot in the New York Times:
This board, to which President Barack Obama appointed four Democrats and four Republicans, has now approved an austerity regimen that, if things go according to plan, envisions — in other words, no economic growth from 2005 through 2024. But the plan [reminscent of the austerity imposed on Greece] doesn’t take into account the impact of such austerity, which would add more years of decline. And there’s more: All the budget tightening over the second decade, including cuts to health care and education, would pay only about $7.9 billion of Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt.
That means that creditors’ lawsuits, which have already been filed, could inflict additional damage and worsen the quarter-century of economic stagnation that is now in the cards. Hedge funds hold much of Puerto Rico’s debt, and since May their claims have been under consideration in a bankruptcy-like proceeding — also under the Promesa act — that does not look any more promising than the oversight board’s plan.
(One of Trump’s earlier tweets — September 25 — read: “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & , is in deep trouble.” So it’s pleasing to see that the Democrats’ tender concern for the hedgies and vulture funds is shared across the political spectrum.)
Now let’s look at the effect of this thoroughly bipartisan austerity on the Puerto Rican power system.
The Effect of PROMESA’s Austerity Regime on the Puerto Rican Power Grid
Here’s before and after satellite imagery from NOAA on September 25, showing where Puerto Rico can keep the lights on, and where it can’t:
— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) September 25, 2017
Holy moley. In words:
Puerto Rico officials say it will likely be four to six months before power is fully restored across the U.S. territory of 3.5 million people…
This week, for the first time since the storm, electrical crews began appearing not just in the capital, but in neighboring Carolina and Rio Grande. Faced with a tangle of downed poles, lines and transformers on nearly every street, it wasn’t clear how much progress they were making.
So, the wires are all down. And why? Deferred maintenance demanded by austerity. Buzzfeed:
That general neglect has been coupled with a more specific one in Puerto Rico’s case: In recent years, as part of sweeping cuts to the government budget, many public services were slashed, including preventative maintenance of the electricity network. That meant — with disastrous results. After a big storm in the United States, the power company may have one break in the lines every few miles from a downed tree. .
So, no. Getting Puerto Rico up and running isn’t anything like D-Day, Or the Moon Landing, for that matter. It’s more like — gawd help us all if this metaphor turns out to be true — rebuilding the infrastructure of an entire country after a war. Like Iraq, say.
Now let’s see how the failure of the power system cascades down to the water system.
The Effect of the Failure of Puerto Rico’s Power Grid on the Water Supply
From the Los Angeles Times:
The collapse of the power system has tumbled down the infrastructure chain, making it difficult to pump water supplies — the water authority is one of the power authority’s biggest clients.
Plan B for pumping water is genators. Yahoo News:
The U.S. territory’s water woes are tied to the collapse of its power grid; electricity is needed to pump, treat and filter water that shows up in household taps.
With the grid incapacitated, diesel-powered generators are needed to clean and move water where it needs to go. But the island does not have nearly enough generators to perform this work, utility officials say, while fuel to run them is scarce.
Here’s a sampling of what people are doing when the taps run dry. The New York Times (I’ve helpfully
The waters stink of . He’s seen fish swim by his stoop. To exit his home he often paddles an abandoned refrigerator like a gondola.
[H]ere on the face of a weedy hill, , one of the few places where people from miles around could find fresh water.
It was only a matter of time before people started showing up suffering the effects of and rotten food.
A woman washed her daughter’s hair in a in Utuado, a city of brightly painted concrete homes nestled in a sleepy valley.
“11 o’clock at night!” he proudly exclaimed when asked what time one had to arrive at the ice factory to be first in line for two $1.50 bags of .
(Even I know that ice in the tropics isn’t always potable.) The danger in all of these cases is waterborne disease:
With nothing coming out of the taps, people have turned to wells and springs, which presents another public health risk, [Erik Olson, director of the Health Program at the Washington, D.C.-based NRDC] said.
“That is shallow ground water that is incredibly susceptible to contamination from sewage and other sources,” he said.
The CDC points out the medical dangers of contamination:
Spokespeople for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention downplayed the risk of cholera (but not of other possible outbreaks). “CDC does not anticipate that Hurricane Maria will result in cases or outbreaks of cholera in Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands, as there was no evidence of the disease on these islands before the hurricane made landfall,” said a statement the CDC asked me to attribute to Sven Rodenbeck, the chief science officer for the CDC 2017 hurricane response. “Nonetheless, the risk of cases or outbreaks of other waterborne, foodborne, or diarrheal diseases is always elevated when there is limited access to safe drinking water, safe sanitations systems, and running water and soap for handwashing.”
No, very little risk of cholera. And here as a sidebar let me take a moment to draw attention to this insanely irresponsible tweet by Paul Krugman (sorry for the sourcing, but I verified Krugman’s tweets):
— Dr. Milton Wolf (@MiltonWolfMD) October 1, 2017
So, cholera is unlikely, very fortunately. To be fair to Krugman, he retracted — not cholera, conjunctivitis (!!!) — and his retraction got 414 Retweets, versus the 12.3K Retweets for the original falsehood.
And ending on a positive note, this from NPR:
Waves For Water leader Rob McQueen shows them how to create water filtration systems out of very simple materials: a plastic bucket, a rubber hose and a small plastic filter that purifies the water from biological contamination.
On Monday, Richard Colón, better known by his stage name Crazy Legs, and the team will deliver 300 of these water filtration systems and buckets to the more isolated areas in the northwest part of the island. The idea is to train local leaders to show others how to use them. Colón’s friend Boris Culbero says people in remote areas have been drinking water from contaminated creeks.
Very encouraging. Maybe FEMA — or the military — should adopt this technology and scale it out from 300 to 3,000 or 30,000. There’s a concrete suggestion from me!
Here’s what happens in a state that’s not under the austerity knife. Reuters:
In Florida, policymakers directed the state’s utilities to “storm harden” their systems following the devastating 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. One decade and several billion ratepayer dollars later, Irma gave people a chance to see their increased utility bills at work.
Now, as a country, we must pool together resources for a swift response to curtail the devastating crisis at hand. But we must also ensure that as the decimated power grid is pieced back together, this catastrophe—and the far too many that preceded it—were not suffered in vain. The electricity system must be rebuilt for a climate-resilient, clean-energy supporting future, not as a replica of its brittle and underinvested past.
Good thought, but PROMESA isn’t about pooling resources. It’s about giving the bondholders their pound of flesh. As Yves asks: “Wall Street Got a Bailout, Why Not Puerto Rico?”