Puerto Rico: Post-Hurricane Maria Relief Effort Omnishambles Rolls On

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:

Meanwhile, 76,000 Puerto Ricans still lack access to clean water[1], 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.[2]

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.

A solid waste incinerator:

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:

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[3] 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.”


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

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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. deltasquire

    Small correction. The New Orleans area you refer to near the end of the essay is the Ninth Ward, not the Ninth Quarter.

  2. rd

    There is no excuse now for anybody to have dangerous water. For $60, FEMA could buy Sawyer bucket water filters that can get bacteria, viruses, and protozoa out of hundreds of gallons of drinking water per day. You can run water through cheese cloth into a bucket full of charcoal to get most organic and metals contaminants out and then through another bucket with one of these filters and supply pretty clean water to an entire neighborhood. Everything can be packaged up in a couple of five gallon buckets and provide some 1 or 5 gallon potable water carriers, for a total weight of just a few pounds and distribute them by any means practical anywhere.


    1. JBird

      That would mean spending money and solving, for a while, the problems of the unwashed Deplorables. If those moochers are too poor for luxuries like clean water that won’t kill them, it’s their lazy a@@es’ problem.

      In seriousness, while I do not think too many of our Misleadership Class are like this, enough are as to make not a completely inaccurate description of the why. I sometimes think we should start dropping some off in disaster zones and have them see how it is. Even with money and a vehicle, not knowing when, how, and if, the power, water, roads, and your job will be around…it is…a horrible, disconcerting, sinking feeling.

      1. Mark P.

        That would mean spending money and solving … the problems of the unwashed Deplorables …. while I do not think too many of our Misleadership Class are like this, enough are

        It would also require your U.S. Misleadership Class to actually possess specific knowledge about what Sawyer bucket water filters, etc. are and how they work.

        Unfortunately, U.S. elites are primarily drawn from those who got their degrees as shyster lawyers, MBAs and pol sci majors.
        They wouldn’t put it quite this way, but such folks consider competence and specific knowledge as something for the little people — the ones who didn’t go to Harvard and Yale — to deal with.

        And that there’s the main reason China is going to eat Washington’s lunch sooner than most people expect. The Chinese Communist Party elite are primarily engineers.

        1. JBird

          Hey what wrong with us poli sci majors? :-)

          We do a problem when despite having hundreds of law schools, the Supreme Court consist of five Harvard, three Yale, and one Columbia graduates; this de facto requirement to have to graduate from an ever shrinking list of elite Ivy League schools is both a refutation of our nation being anything like a meritocracy and an example of the reasons for the unwise, mechanistic, almost dreamlike, decisions of the Supreme Court decisions in such things as civil asset forfeiture, money as speech, enhanced interrogation, and on the security state’s shenanigans (the FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, TSA, Border Patrol, etc.)

          The leadership in all things be it social, educational/academic, economic, business, political, legal, and even NGOs has a shrinking list of acceptable backgrounds and views increasingly requiring social connections, and wealth, rather than talents, skills, or competency. This does help to explain the f@@@ed actions of everything from the Red Cross’ ineffectual work on Haiti, the New York hurricane, etc, to our recent invasions of the planet Earth.

    2. fajensen

      I used to take my kids far out in the forest and make them drink tea made from water from lakes and streams and cook food on fire or petrol stoves using whatever is there. :).

      I hope they will remember their bad upbringing when power goes out for 2 weeks.

      PS –

      We had Lots of whining and complaining before and after those trips, never during, now they are all adults and they are nostalgic about it.

  3. David Carl Grimes

    Maybe that’s the whole idea. Keep Puerto Rico poor and desperate so Puerto Ricans fly out to the mainland and provide a cheap supply of labor for the lower 48. These guys are American citizens so no question about their immigration status – unlike Mexicans.

    1. marym

      The right-wing anti-immigrant fervor isn’t about legal status. Its adherents probably don’t consider Puerto Ricans “real” Americans.

  4. The Rev Kev

    I once read a reporter saying in a column that if you want to know how a government really wants to treat its own people, look at the way that government treats those people with the least protection.

  5. Altandmain

    I think that there is one other consideration.

    The long term viability of Puerto Rico, New Orleans, and similar cities may force them to be abandoned. As far as bad hurricanes go, we have not seen anything yet. When the worst of global warming hits, we will see much more powerful hurricanes.

    No doubt we will see the worst of the shock doctrine after that happens …

    I agree though that it is looking like the periphery (as Marx called it) is being allowed to fall. The interesting question is what about the “core”. What happens to cities like Miami, Florida or Houston, Texas? We will surely see much powerful hurricanes in the coming decades.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Totally agree with your comments. It will be interesting down the track when we see two areas like New York and South Florida both start to go under rising sea levels with only the diminishing resources to save one area and having to choose between the two.
      Otherwise, I agree with your thoughts. So far we are only in the first innings and ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!

  6. Lynne

    Ummm… As to your wonder about a natural disaster in flyover country, I can tell you what happens. A few years ago, a freak blizzard struck the northern plains and, due to the timing, caused millions of dollars of losses , including causing massive animal deaths. It was significant enough that the BBC sent a crew to SD to do report spread out over a week of daily coverage. NBC did one short segment on it, which was dwarfed by comments left on the website from the coasts cheering the devastation and successfully hoping there would be no formal assistance to those wiped out. Or perhaps you recall the widespread devastation to Oklahoma City back in 1999? Or perhaps not, given the meager coverage. Then perhaps the Missouri River flooding a few years ago, which left an interstate highway under water for months and almost flooded a nuclear reactor in Nebraska? Perhaps not, given the meager coverage and complete lack of assistance. For that matter, how much coverage did you see of the fires in the Northwest (as opposed to California) this year? Rinse and repeat.

    None of that excuses what is happening in Puerto Rico. It’s just that it’s not as shocking or unique as it appears you think.

    1. JBird

      About thirty years ago after a couple of moderate quakes killed some people and messed up some infrastructure (I don’t remember but there was probably some big fires and maybe a small flood somewhere, it is California.) some dumbass Congresscritters suggested that we should be billed or cut off because money. It became a thing to suggest that perhaps people shouldn’t live in such a dangerous place but as Usenet days I didn’t have to read too much narcissistic drivel. Funny thing is that less than a year later one of those epic wrath from God floods hit the Midwest. Which happens but as every state that had the Missouri or the Mississippi was flooded it shut the penney pinchers right up.

      Look, every place in North America has some combinations of natural disasters unless you want to live in the Sonora Desert. And the news media is almost gone. It certainly doesn’t have the depth or width of coverage it had even 15 years ago, which means much less coverage of any disasters. Also every time that there’s no major disasters for a few years and/or a Republican majority, FEMA gets funding cuts, and both Parties love to force the Corps of Engineers away from necessary maintenance and flood control to rich constituents prefered, and perhaps lucrative, projects. So if some small souled partisan ghouls want to gloat or ignore others’ suffering, well I’ll leave them to stew in their bile, as I wouldn’t want to know them anyways.

  7. Enrico Malatesta

    Cuba was devastated by the same series of storms as Puerto Rico – given the Political Axiom that Communism is a failed system, it would be great to compare the two recovery processes side-by-side to see how Communism compares with Colonialism.

    1. Jer Bear

      Communism aside, Cuba is rolling in UN relief money and the work is still coming along. The primary destruction was the north coast, which was strafed by Irma. PR was hit dead center by a Cat 5 which is far worse.

  8. Harry Shearer

    You wrote: “the local boosters decided to turn the Ninth Ward into a tourist-friendly Disneyland, except with beads.” I don’t know what your source is for that sentence (Spike Lee, perhaps? or some other Brooklynite with a weekend to kill?), but it’s about as wrong as it can be.
    “The Ninth Ward” is actually two districts, bifurcated since the 1920s by the Army Corps’ first exercise in “fixing” the water in New Orleans, the Industrial Canal. The Upper Ninth suffered severe flooding in its lakeward half, but the Lower Ninth was almost completely devastated by backed-up storm surge unleashed when a Corps-mis-engineered floodwall gave way. The Upper Ninth has had a quite remarkable recovery–its main street, St. Claude Avenue, is now an alternative music club district, and homes and businesses have come back. The Lower Ninth is a different story: Brad Pitt helped build some new homes, certain neighborhoods, like Holy Cross, have come back, others have “gone back to nature”. No sign of Goofy or Mickey in either district.

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