By Lambert Strether of Corrente
Periodically, we’ve looked at the situation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria: Roads, power, water, and money, PROMESA (the Obama plan that imposed an austerity regime on the island), and vulture capitalists squabbling over Puerto Rico’s body. In this post, I want to return to Puerto Rico’s electrical power situation:
Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, commanding general and chief engineer for the Corps, said in an interview Wednesday that he expects Puerto Rico’s electric grid to reach 75 percent of customers by the end of January. That should rise to 95 percent by the end of February, and 100 percent by the end of May, he said, more than eight months after Hurricane Maria hit.
The slow pace of restoring electricity following Hurricane Maria has become a symbol of the U.S. government’s uneven response.
That government website now lists power restoration at 66.2%. Why so long? The answer, it seems — the story is thinly sourced, with no reporting from the ground — is logistics: Power poles and cable take time to manufacture and ship, for example. There’s also a scarcity of transformers and fittings.
In this post, I’ll go into how power restoration is distributed (unequally, as you might think) and then look at ripple effects of power problems for water, hospitals and mortality. I’ll conclude with some words on the policy coming out of Washington.
Unequal Power Distribution
New York Magazine has an excellent report from the ground, from which I’ve pulled out this material on power. The stats use the classic method of concealing problems with averages:
A few days later, I spoke with José E. Sánchez, who is leading efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to restore the island’s electricity. I asked him when power would be restored to the most remote, rural areas. Sánchez declined to answer. He noted that some of the most important repairs can be done only by helicopter. … Sánchez told me that status.pr, a government website, was giving an overly optimistic view of the grid’s recovery. The site measures progress in terms of megawatt capacity, which was then over 60 percent. It neglected to mention that . ‘People on the mainland might take a look at that site and think things are going well,’ Sánchez said. ‘They’re not.’
And here’s what we mean by “concentrated around cities”:
Two months after the storm, it was apparent that the most vigorous recovery efforts were concentrated around the capital. Many stores were open for business, . With few streetlights operating, drivers were still improvising left-hand turns across four lanes of traffic, but conditions were nothing like in the rural areas, where the only aid many received were handouts of bottled water and military rations from the local mayor.
Now let’s look at some ripple effects from power failures.
Ripple Effects: Water Supply
From the Washington Post:
[P]ower problems are water problems by another name. …. Power and water are intimately connected: Water treatment plants are hooked to the electricity grid and rely on consistent energy. When treatment plants and pumping stations are propped up with generators, power can – and does – fail, resulting in frequent water shutoffs, as the island’s water authority indicates. Local officials in Puerto Rico say their water service typically goes in and out.
There are numerous accounts of waterborne disease and bacterial illness in Puerto Rico. Leptospirosis, an often deadly bacterial disease, has seen a significant uptick in cases. Whether these illnesses are caused by floodwaters, drinking water or other sources of water exposure, they are a cause for serious concern.
Over two-thirds of the population of Puerto Rico was at potential risk of exposure to bacterial contamination in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, according to government test results obtained by NRDC. More than 2.3 million Puerto Rican residents were served by water systems which drew at least one sample testing positive for total coliforms or E. coli after Maria devastated the island in September.
The tests performed by the Puerto Rico Department of Health confirmed that several cities in Puerto Rico are at risk of bacterial contamination in their water supply, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The documents show that forty-two cities had a water sample testing positive for total coliforms—an indicator of potential pathogen contamination in the water. One of those cities is San Juan, whose water system serves upwards of one million residents.
Of course, not all that contamination is attributable to water treatment plants failing without power, but the power failures certainly can’t be helping.
Ripple Effects: Air Pollution
Since the power isn’t reliable, people use generators (reminds me of Baghdad). The New Republic:
Puerto Rico has become known as “Generator Island” since the loss of the vast majority of the electric grid, as diesel and gas generators have become one of the only options for reliable power. In October, the Times noted that the generators are “raising health and safety concerns,” since they can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. But three months of widespread, ongoing diesel generator use presents a different problem: Diesel exhaust, which “contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants, including many known or suspected cancer-causing substances, such as benzene, arsenic, and formaldehyde,” according to one study. That study also notes that “up to 70 percent of cancer risk attributable to inhalation of toxic air pollutants in the United States arise from diesel exhaust.” In October, FEMA warned Puerto Ricans using generators to protect themselves against fire, electrocution, and carbon monoxide poisoning, but didn’t mention air pollution.
Ripple Effects: Hospitals and Mortality
From the same New York Magazine article linked to above:
The damage caused by the extended electrical outage is most acute in the island’s hospitals. A study of power outages in Ghana over a five-year period found a 43 percent increase in patient mortality on those days that a health-care facility loses power for more than two hours.
A description of Centro Médico, Puerto Rico’s largest, most sophisticated hospital:
And even as conditions stabilized at Centro Médico, health risks swelled. I spoke to several doctors who worked there during the first weeks after the storm. … Most recalled the electricity’s failing at least ten times for a half-hour or longer during the first month. “The floors were slippery,” one told me. “The patients were sweating. It was the perfect environment for bacteria to grow. You try and do your best under these conditions, but that’s just not possible.” “The power went down,” said another, “and the temperature went up. The sterile conditions were lost. And they did their operations anyway, because they had to.” I asked whether any patients died owing to the intermittent electricity. Dr. Carlos Gómez, the director of ASEM’s emergency room, emphatically denied that any had. But one doctor estimated that Maria-related electricity outages had caused 15 patient deaths. They were “in very bad condition already,” the doctor acknowledged. “Losing the electricity pushed them over the cliff.”
So if that’s San Juan, imagine what’s going on out in the boonies:
Elsewhere on the island, however, many small hospitals were facing the loss of power and dwindling supplies of food, water, and medicine. Six hospitals shut down completely; at least two, in Arecibo and Aguadilla, reportedly operated for weeks without full electricity. A Florida-based doctor who visited the hospital in Aguadilla told me that temperatures in the emergency room regularly reached 97 degrees Fahrenheit, and that, later, the hospital was closed because of mold. Hospitals lucky enough to be equipped with reliable generators desperately searched for sources of diesel. With morgues quickly filling to capacity, the Army deployed battlefield MIRCS — olive-drab Mobile Integrated Remains Collection Systems — to hospitals in San Gérman, Ponce, and Fajardo, where they remained for more than a week.
To their credit, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren introduced a “Marshall Plan” for Puerto Rico at the end of November. Although the bill was a “messaging bill,” “not intended to become law as written, but to lay down a marker for Democrats to fight for as negotiations continue over relief for the island.” And to her credit, Warren did say that “The vulture funds that snapped up Puerto Rican debt should not get one cent from the island, not one cent.” But we haven’t heard anything from the Democrat leadership on Puerto Rico at all. (I can’t find a thing from Schumer, for example; perhaps he was too busy caving on DACA.)
Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine trained me to watch for neoliberals rushing in to exploit “natural” disasters; for example, after Katrina, Milton Friedman immediately began to push for New Orleans to replace its public schools with charters. But if that’s happening in Puerto Rico, it’s certainly happening at a much slower pace. The slow pace raises the dispiriting conclusion that, as global weirding leads to more “natural” disasters, the response will simply be to treat damaged areas as “sacrifice zones” and abandon them, unless (like Houston) they have something (oil) the elites really, really want. For example, the New York area has some political clout, but New York City is “still behind on storm-proofing, restoration projects five years after Hurricane Sandy.” Perhaps we are looking at another aspect of the new normal.
 I wonder if the supply chain has been so optimized that there’s no slack to provision disasters. Fine for corporations, not so fine for citizens.