By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
If indeed they is any relief effort at all, as opposed to “right-sizing” the whole
colony island. A million Puerto Ricans still don’t have power, although progress is being made, as heartwarming stories show (“Let There Be Light! Puerto Rico School Celebrates Return of Power After 112 Days”). In less happy news, suicides are up, and now, in the midst of the flu season, there is a shortage of saline bags, which are manufactured in Puerto Rico. Here is a set of statistics maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE); power is at the bottom:
— USACE HQ (@USACEHQ) January 19, 2018
Meanwhile, 76,000 Puerto Ricans still lack access to clean water, and the EPA has issued warnings on contamination (“out of an abundance of caution”).
And so the grind of recovery continues in fits and starts. In this post, I’ll look at materiel shenanigains in rebuilding the grid, the bright side of the Puerto Rican exodus, the administration’s denial of a Puerto Rican relief loan, and disaster capitalism. A little disjointed, perhaps, but that is what is in the news flow!
About Those Telephone Poles
Earlier this month, we wrote about the PROMESA’s Fiscal Oversight Board, and how its agent for controlling Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), had cleaned up PREPA’s balance sheet by imposing a culture of austerity, leading to a shortage of materiel, like telephone poles. Hard to repair a power grid without telephone poles! Well — spitballing, here — PREPA behaved as you or I would, if in inequity aversion mode. That’s right, they stashed some poles (and other materiel) and didn’t tell anyone. The Intercept:
ON SATURDAY, A day after becoming aware of a massive store of rebuilding materials being held by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the U.S. federal government — the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with their security detail — entered a Palo Seco warehouse owned by the public utility to claim and distribute the equipment, according to a spokesperson for the Corps.
“Due to the size of the warehouse,” [USACE spokesperson Luciano Vera] said, accounting for everything contained therein is still underway days later. Among the materials recovered so far are “2,875 pieces of critical material to contractors” along with the sleeves of full-tension steel, a component of Puerto Rican electrical infrastructure required to erect new power lines.
Clearly, one would wish to be able to throw 2,875 pieces of “critical material” (whatever that means) into the fray; but on the other hand, 41,000 poles are needed, so it’s not clear to me how significant the material in “Warehouse 5” really is.
And in a followup story from The Intercept, the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER) gives its view:
In the wake of the criticism, UTIER says the materials discovered at the PREPA warehouse were largely from the utility engineering and transmission division. Many of the materials have allegedly been stored there for several years, according to UTIER, and some were outdated and unusable in grid restoration efforts.
“That PREPA warehouse has equipment and materials that we use for work on transmission lines,” [Fredyson Martinez, UTIER’s vice president] said. “That is not the usual materials that linemen are using to restore the power. … Those materials were there for a long time.”
(Supporting the theory I spitballed above.) UTIER also has a good deal to say about USACE’s own warehouses, and the overflowing material not yet distributed therefrom.
To me, the bottom line is that Puerto Rico needs metric [family blog] ton of materiel that is not yet on the island, regardless of who has what stashed away in which warehouse. (For another day: dysfunction in both the colonized and the colonizers, and why the heck we’re not rebuilding with new and better power production and distributution facilities.)
The Exodus and Cheap Labor
From the Department of It’s An Ill Wind That Blows Nobody Good, the Washington Post:
Since Hurricane Maria, nearly 300,000 Puerto Ricans have left for Florida alone. At first, most of those leaving were elderly, disabled or in need of critical medical care. Now planes are leaving full of young people economically stranded in the post-Maria landscape. These departures will only compound the already historic migratory wave caused by the island’s fiscal crisis, possibly resulting in an overall 25 percent population loss by the end of the decade.
In a political climate dominated by xenophobia and the politics of closed borders, one might expect that an influx of Latino evacuees to the mainland would be unwelcome. However, throughout the United States evacuees are sought after and even recruited. In the face of expected labor shortages caused by President Trump’s anti-immigration policies, many employers are eager to hire bilingual workers for whom the minimum wage of a U.S. state represents a significant boost in income.
Both the federal and Puerto Rican government have facilitated the exodus. In the absence of a true plan for recovery on the island, migration has become a form of disaster relief. For the first time in the agency’s history, FEMA created an “air bridge” and chartered cruise ships to evacuate residents.
“Migration has become a form of disaster relief.” That’ll work, until it doesn’t (cf. Accuweather, “Steady Increase in Climate Related Natural Disasters“).
Administration Denies Puerto Rico Relief Loan
From the Washington Post:
A billion-dollar emergency loan approved by Congress to help Puerto Rico deal with the effects of Hurricane Maria has been temporarily withheld by federal officials who say the U.S. territory is not facing a cash shortage like it has repeatedly warned about in recent months.
Federal officials also noted the local government released documents in late December showing it had nearly $7 billion available in cash. The letter was first published Wednesday by the newspaper El Nuevo Dia.
Federal officials said the U.S. government will create a cash balance policy to determine when the funds will be released via the Community Disaster Loan Program. They said in the letter that the cash balance level will be decided on by the federal government in consultation with Puerto Rico officials and a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances. Once the central cash balance decreases to that level, the funds will be released, officials said.
But even if the Puerto Rican government was $7 billion stashed away (in Warehouse 5?), that won’t help the municipal-level water and sewer companies, who can’t bill their customers because if the power’s knocked out:
Local officials have warned that Puerto Rico’s power and water and sewer companies will run out of money this month. Both companies say their funds have dwindled since the storm caused up to an estimated $95 billion in damage, knocking out power to the entire island. Nearly 40 percent of power customers remain in the dark.
Meanwhile, the Fiscal Control Board has its eye on the ball:
On Wednesday, the federal control board announced it would hold a public hearing Friday into why nearly $7 billion is being held in local government accounts, where that money came from and how it will be used.
And so the Puerto Rican people go on drinking contaminated water. Priorities!
And why the heck was it a loan in the first place? Madness!
Disaster Capitalist Bottom Feeders
Here is a random list of disaster capitalists seeking to exploit the situation (random in the sense that this is what came up in the news flow; this in addition to privatizing PREPA, which has always been on the agenda).
A private manager for power restoration:
The Prepa bondholders’ position in favor of an independent private manager is shared by other energy industry insiders who believe power needs to be restored first and foremost to all utility customers before thinking about drafting a fiscal plan or devising solutions to deal with the public utility’s $9 billion debt. Prepa filed for bankruptcy protection under Promesa last year after the oversight board rejected a debt-restructuring agreement that had been negotiated with bondholders.
As Puerto Rico struggles to rebuild from Hurricane Maria, a private corporation is working the halls of Congress to push through approval of a polluting and costly trash incinerator—misleadingly billed as a “renewable energy” source–on the island.
Energy Answers, Inc., has been trying unsuccessfully for a decade to construct a solid waste incinerator in Arecibo, Puerto Rico—a venture that Earthjustice has partnered with local communities to defeat. Recently released documents show that the company is seeking to capitalize on post-hurricane recovery efforts by urging the federal government to finance its incinerator despite the company’s failure to obtain necessary local permits and federal approvals.
Harrisburg residents, please chime in!
And of course:
I traveled all the way to DC for a conference about transforming Puerto Rico into a free economic zone using the blockchain … and now it appears to not be happening?
— Atossa Araxia Abrahamian (@atossaaraxia) January 19, 2018
Oopsie! What strikes me forcibly is how trivial these efforts are; there’s nothing at all like the response to Katrina, where Uncle Miltie’s acolyte’s instantly began scheming to privatize the New Orleans school system, and the local boosters decided to turn the Ninth Ward into a tourist-friendly Disneyland, except with beads. (Too strong? Not strong enough? Locals please let me know.) Again, it’s like the island is a tear-down. “Nothing here worth exploiting, so move along, move along!”
Apparently, it doesn’t matter to the political class that (if that matters to you) Puerto Ricans are already American citizens and (if that matters to you) they are (in the main) both people of color (as we say) and Latinx (if that is the currently approved collective noun). I can’t help but wonder what will happen when natural disasters strike the flyover states, which might as well be colonies themselves (good only for fracking, pipelines, and hog lagoons). If a ginormous hurricane swept up the Maine coastline, and wrecked our power grid (which is old) and wrecked a lot of our houses (Maine has the oldest housing stock in the nation), flattened a not-yet-clearcut forest or two and destroyed the coastal tourist industry infrastructure, what would happen? Would we end up seeking call center jobs elsewhere, because it’s not worth it to rebuild so marginal a state? “There but for the grace of God go I.”
 Interestingly, the El Yunque National Forest provides 20% of Puerto Rico’s fresh water, and post-Maria defoliation and deforestation put some percentage of that water at risk.
 The cynic in me notes that the Intercept article says this:
The AP only reported that “officials over the weekend also discovered some needed materials in a previously overlooked warehouse owned by Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority.” How they discovered them and how they were obtained is a story that has not been fully told.
The Intercept article, however, does not go on to tell that story, seguing instead into material that could be read as taking points for PREPA’s privatization; the raid would then be a stunt in aid of that effort.
 To be fair, Sanders and some others are making noise. But objectively, is the Puerto Rican disaster more important than DACA, if loss of life and suffering be the metric? I think so. But Puerto Rico’s recovery is not part of “the narrative” at all.