One-Third of Puerto Rico Won’t Have Christmas Tree Lights Because They Still Don’t Have Power

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. Just 61 percent of electricity had been restored as of Wednesday [December 13] according to data on a website run by the island’s government.

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.[1]

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, 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 the recovery has been concentrated around cities and industrial sites, leaving more than half of PREPA’s customers in the dark. ‘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, including the lavish Mall of San Juan. 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.

The Natural Resources Defense Council:

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.


[1] 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.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. nilavar

    Is this any surprise in our current ‘ Extraction (Rent) Economy’?

    The three ‘riches’t counties in the Country are around Washington DC metro areas! Wonder, what would do they gripe about!?

    Happy holidays!

    1. lyle

      It appears the British Virgin Islands are at about the same percent restored, There estimate is still march for full restoration.

  2. Samuel Bierwagen

    Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine trained me to watch for neoliberals rushing in to exploit “natural” disasters

    Did you see the Bloomberg piece from the 14th on the Puerto Rico carpetbaggers?

    Birnbaum said “an associate” of his had determined that from 40 percent to 65 percent of Puerto Ricans customarily purchased the bulk of their food supplies with federal aid in the form of Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, cards. Small businesses around the island depend on EBT spending. In many rural areas, the point-of-sale terminals in grocery and convenience stores still hadn’t been connected to a network, meaning cash was the only option. Most of the ATMs in those areas were still offline, too. The stores, as a result, were unable to sell goods to a customer base that desperately wanted to buy them. “By enabling those terminals, the store can pay its employees, let the residents buy food, and create less reliance on FEMA for food distribution,” Birnbaum told me.


    “We’re all essentially against the traditional NGO model,” Levin told me. “They’re not sustainable. All the smart people who want to effect change are always begging for money. They implement solutions, but they’re dependent on fundraising. What happens when the money goes away? If you want to build sustainable, lasting capacity, it has to come from the private sector. It’s OK if there’s a profit motive. That’s what makes the world go round, you know?”


    Levin and Tactivate had secured funding for the project from the Foundation for Puerto Rico, a San Juan nonprofit that before the storm was dedicated to promoting tourism and innovation. By December the Tactivate team had installed 15 units, with eight more planned, and Levin estimated that the connections had enabled more than $1.3 million in transactions.

    Reading between the lines: a nonprofit paid a contractor to drive out and install some credit card terminals, so people could continue to spend EBT money on food.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Sounds like neoliberalism to me. If there is profit in a disaster, go in and sell your services – even if that is not what desperate people want or need. Charge hefty prices and leave the place with a rentier model in operation. If there is no profit in it, then it is a government responsibility – but not with corporate taxes paying for it!

    2. lyle

      Shows the general value of keeping cash on hand and not relying on the electronic systems to stay up. (As was suggested on the final episode of the first season of Mr Robot where the (lead characters group) managed to crash all the banks etc, so no credit cards worked it was cash on the barrelhead or nothing.

      1. Mark P.

        Shows the general value of keeping cash on hand and not relying on the electronic systems to stay up


      2. Peter VE

        I listened to a Freakonomics Radio program today which plugged the advantages of electronic transactions: easier to tax, criminal transactions are usually in cash (especially after bitcoin headed south Friday). I kept yelling at the radio to bring someone from Puerto Rico to demonstrate how an entire economy can die by relying on an increasingly fragile electrical and communications system.

        1. Lyle

          O just show them the episode of Mr Robot when all electronic transaction systems crash. Of course it is just a step from that to the Doomsday preppers when the only way to trade is barter as the currency is just paper.. For example rather than a nuclear war just figure out how to take down the internet and lots of commerce would come to a rapid halt as most stores card validation systems depend on the internet, instead of the slightly older phone system, or the old books of invalid numbers along with an imprinter. If I were North Korea crash the payment systems and you have brought the US to its knees (since it appears that they have been involved it a number of hacks)

  3. Anti-Schmoo

    Puerto Rico is the pre-eminant example of neo-liberal economic predation; which started long before the storm. The storm was an unexpected bonus; exploited to the nine’s.
    But, more importantly (not that Puerto Rico isn’t important); along with Huston; it’s the opening gambit of the future; and how state and federal governments, will not act. FEMA? A quaint relic of the past; or an impotent bureau, presently on the dole; space filler.
    Victims of natural catastrophies will be left to their own “devices” for any reparations; which means they are totally on their own.
    Private financing will be the only choice offered; due of course, to budget constraints.
    I would strongly suggest waking from your slumber to some current and very real threats to your survival, really…

  4. p isaac

    There are plenty of successful and resilient utilities in venues poorer than Puerto Rico. The article and comments elide that PREPA was a government-owned sink of cronyism, patronage and lack of modernization long before Maria and long before Puerto Rico’s fiscal difficulties.

    The article and comments want to shift all the blame onto the presumed inadequacy of some deliberately cruel Federal response . This is wrong-headed . No one, including creditors, benefits from Puerto Rican economic dysfunction . And it is patronizing . If you believe in the dignity and sovereignty of Puerto Rico , the inadequacy of the local responses has to be an embarrassment.

    1. lyle

      It should be noted that the USVI and BVI electric companies are both state owned. Both sets of islands suffered almost complete destruction of most of their electric system, and both are in the 60 to 70% range of restoration. The BVI did it of course without much US help being a British colony, and Britian not providing the resources the US did. Both talk about resource constraints in the supply chain as well as shipping problems. (neither is affected by the Jones act, the USVI being outside the US customs boundry, and the BVI being British..

  5. XXYY

    Thanks, Lambert, for continuing to raise the profile of this issue. Much of the press has obviously moved on.

    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.

    I remember thinking this vividly in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. A major American city was devastated, yet the response seemed lackluster, intermittent, and opportunistic. These people were in trouble! Yet the country’s resources were not being marshaled. The myth at least is that Americans will come riding to the rescue when someone is in need; the reality seems to be that making money and playing golf take precedence.

    It’s also interesting (and telling) that the US military is the go-to agency in the aftermath of a disaster. The military is a war fighting agency, not a rescue-and-rebuild agency, and seems poorly suited to the task (and its spokesmen occasionally seem understandably unenthusiastic about having to perform off-mission like this) . I assume it is the only remaining government agency that is adequately funded and staffed and in some sense “works”; there is no one else to call.

    It would be far better to have some kind of Disaster Aftermath Department (DAD!) that would be specifically staffed for disaster recovery and rebuilding, would pre-position critical supplies, and would spend any downtime making plans for recovering from pandemics, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, floods, and fires, much like the military makes and stockpiles war plans for possible future use. This department could also be a customer for military equipment (trucks, ships, radios, helicopters, planes) that is being retired or replaced by the DOD, making good use of taxpayer funds.

    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.

    This is another good point. Again, the military is the only government agency that has significant logistics and heavy lift capability available, though I assume it is already in heavy use for normal military operations. This could be another aspect of the DAD agency: having a lot of “spare” ability to move things around quickly when needed.

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