Puerto Rico Update: Forests, Power, Depopulation, and Privatization

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

In this post, I’ll do a quick survey of the topics listed in the headline, starting with forests. When we get to power, we’ll see that restoration in the interior might be complete by May — just in time for 2018’s hurricane season! Weather Underground:

The Atlantic hurricane season, which officially runs from June 1 to November 30, has finally drawn to a close. The brutal 2017 season was an awful reminder of the huge hurricane vulnerability problem we face, and how unprepared we are for a potential future where the strongest storms get stronger and push their storm surges inland on top of steadily rising sea levels. Much of the Caribbean lies in ruins after the terrific beatings administered by the twin demon Category 5 hurricanes of 2017, Irma and Maria… The three great hurricanes of 2017 also killed large numbers of people. The preliminary death toll from Harvey is 84, and is 95 from Irma. Hurricane Maria, though, may be responsible for over a thousand deaths. New research that has not yet gone through peer-review puts the indirect death toll from Maria in Puerto Rico at 1,085 and rising… As we discussed in detail last week, the greatest number of indirect deaths on record for a hurricane is 500, for Hurricane Katrina of 2005.

I say “survey” because I’m skimming the surface for each topic; if I dug deeper, I fear that the enormous tangle of pathways to misfortune that I’d find simply wouldn’t be tractable (as we will see Naomi Klein say, in her own way, when we conclude). That’s not good news for other portions of the continental United States that may will experience disasters[1].

But first, one anecdote:

And a second:

(The school bus driver was, I believe, fired. But what were they to do?) So if these two anecdotes are emblematic — a polity that can’t print and distribute movie tickets, or rebuild its bridges after they collapse — the prognosis for the American citizens in Puerto Rico is not good; the political class in the continental United States has no intention whatever of focusing on the problem (despite the good efforts of Senators Sanders and Warren).


Scientific reporting on Hurricane Maria’s impact on is starting to come in. Here’s one from Phys.org:

Assessing the impact of hurricanes on Puerto Rico’s forests

“We look for a change in the spectral signature from before and after the storm,” said Chambers, a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Area as well as an associate professor of geography at UC Berkeley. “When the sunlight bounces off green vegetation it looks one way, and when it’s bouncing off vegetation where the leaves are all stripped off or trees have toppled it’s very different. We find dramatic changes in the spectral signature of the forests associated with damage, tree mortality, uprooted trees, stripped leaves, and canopies.”

Here’s a before-and-after image from the study (left and right, respectively).

The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification describes some of the effects of damaged forests like Puerto Rico:

Through stabilisation of soil, forests minimise erosion and hence reduce the impairment of water quality due to sedimentation. Forest and forest plant roots prevent run-off from heavy rains and with it soil erosion. Woodlands protect water bodies and watercourses by trapping sediments and pollutants from other up-slope land use and activities

Forests also play a role in water availability. Forests absorb water as direct rainfall from the atmosphere and through their roots from the ground. Through a process of evapo-transpiration, water is re-released to the atmosphere and the global water cycle. At the same time, forests may influence the timing of water delivery by maintaining and improving soil infiltration and the soil’s water-storage capacity.

Tropical rainforests play a particularly important role in providing water for the plants and animals that shelter under their thick canopies allowing them to survive and protecting their biodiversity.

Without forests, there would be increased run-off of rain water and with it topsoil erosion.

Leaving aside ecotourism consequences, I’m guessing that effects in Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior would include: Failure of subsistence farming due to topsoil erosion, more washed-out roads and bridges (as above) due to increased run-off, potablity issues due to sediment and pollutants. I’m sure that foresters and ecologists in the readership can come up with more consequences.


First, another anecdote:

So power isn’t reliable even in Puerto Rico’s largest city. And it’s a good thing the hospital had those generators. NBC:

The capital of San Juan was left without power, along with the neighboring municipalities of Caguas, Bayamon and Carolina, company spokeswoman Yohari Molina told The Associated Press. She said crews were working to repair the problem but that wasn’t clear how many customers were affected by the outage. More than 970,000 people live in the areas hit by the blackout.

That’s not to say that the workers restoring the power had an easy time of it. National Public Radio:

FLORIDO: On my way down from Barrio Borinquen, I ran into a couple of linemen here from Denver. John Davis and Dean Breidenbach were working in the rain, repairing a transformer. Breidenbach said on that day, their 24-person crew had restored power to about 30 homes.

DEAN BREIDENBACH: The fact that all the vines have grown over stuff for six months now – all our wire’s under that.

FLORIDO: So it’s really, really – it’s, like, painstakingly slow.

BREIDENBACH: It’s five times harder than normal in the United States doing the same job because of the terrain.

The terrain matters because by an accident of history, the power plants are on Puerto Rico’s southern coast, while its biggest cities are on the northern coast. So the power lines have to cross the difficult mountainous territory in the middle of the island. As the power workers say: “[A]ll the vines have grown over stuff for six months now.” And if you’ve ever been to the tropics, you know how fast those vines can grow and how hard they clutuch. USA Today reports:

Despite nearly 4,000 utility workers across the island working to repair the grid, remote areas like Yabucoa remain a challenge in the massive post-storm power restoration effort, said Col. Jason Kirk, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Power Restoration Commander.

Around 150,000 customers remain without power across the island, down from more than 1.4 million immediately after the storm, he said. Challenges have included gaining access to remote areas that were blocked by storm debris, patching up damaged and outdated equipment and coordinating the efforts of five different entities involved in power restoration[1], including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and multiple crews from the mainland, Kirk said.

“This is of a magnitude beyond anything that’s been undertaken[1] in the United States,” he said.

That’s 150,000 customers without power. Vox clarifies:

As of March 1, about 12.5 percent of utility customers still couldn’t turn on the lights, refrigerate food, or run water pumps. And remember, “customer” refers to a power meter, and each meter can represent multiple people living in the same house.

Above it all, the vultures circle. Common Dreams:

As nearly 250,000 Puerto Ricans remain without power five months after Hurricane Maria struck the island territory—the longest blackout in U.S. history—the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) said Sunday it will reduce its operating reserve to save money, as the island’s government moves toward privatizing the authority.

A federal judge denied PREPA a $1 billion loan over the weekend, saying the authority could not prove it needed the additional cash injection. The company will now reduce its reserve by 450 megawatts, saving $9 million per month but likely resulting in more power outages.

[Puts head in hands].


The North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) has a fine wrap-up on Puerto Rican diasporas, past and present. First, they point out that exodues is not a new thing:

Out-migration is such an enduring aspect of Puerto Rican history that one might say that the country’s most valuable export is its people. But the exodus sparked by the 2006 recession, and exacerbated in recent months by the thousands of Puerto Ricans who have left and continue to leave in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, sets a historical precedent. More Puerto Ricans—around 5.4 million—now live in the United States than in Puerto Rico, with around 3.3 million residents.


The continued depopulation of the Caribbean island appears unstoppable.

The numbers:

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College has estimated that between 2017 and 2019, Puerto Rico could lose up to 470,335 residents, or 14% of its population. These projections were quickly superseded as over 300,000 Puerto Ricans landed in Florida after the hurricane—over twice the number of Cubans who arrived in Florida during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. The out-migration totals since Hurricane Maria exceed the number that left the island during the entire previous decade of economic stagnation and recession. The scale of the human exodus even surpassed the Hispanic Research Center’s recent dire predictions that the population would decline to 3.4 million by 2030. As of this writing, Puerto Rico’s population has already plummeted to 3.3 million. Fertility rates have been declining steadily while death rates have increased, further exacerbating the island’s rapid depopulation.

NACLA concludes:

The scale and rapidity of depopulation has no parallel in Puerto Rican history, and bears a disturbing resemblance to a movement of people who have been forcibly displaced by war.

Other authorities agree. The Washington Post:

“What we are observing is a major depopulation event that is not extremely common in modern history,” said Lyman Stone, an independent migration researcher and economist at the Agriculture Department who provided models to Puerto Rico. “People kind of treated me like a crazy person when I put it out there.”

“People kind of treated me like a crazy person.” They always do, don’t they?


First, school privatization. I haven’t been able to pin down why school privatization instantly became the preferred policy position in New Orleans after Katrina, and has only lurched slowly forward after Maria[2]. But now privatization is on the move. Education Week:

[Governor Ricardo Rosselló and Education Secretary Julia Keleher] have made waves for proposing to close about 300 public schools, more than a quarter of the island’s 1,100, and introducing new schools similiar to charter schools. Keleher has also said she wants to introduce vouchers to Puerto Rico, although she said the island’s situation needs to stabilize first.

I’m not going to go into the details on why charters are one of those bright ideas squillionaires have that don’t work out, but I will point out one detail that seems to have been ignored: Charters would appeat to violate Puerto RIco’s Constitution. Article II, Section 5:

Everyone has the right to an education directed to the full development of his personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. There will be a public education system which is free and wholly non-sectarian. Education shall be free in primary and secondary school, to the state where facilities permit, it will be made ​​mandatory for school primary. No public money or property for the support of schools will be used or educational institutions other than the state. Nothing contained in this provision to prevent the State from any child can not provide educational services established by law for the protection or welfare of children. Compulsory attendance public primary schools to the state where facilities permit, according available herein shall not be construed to apply to those who receive instruction in primary schools established under governmental auspices.

Second, power privatization. Reuters:

In January, Rossello announced his intention to sell off the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s power generation assets, and said it could take about 18 months to complete.

On Monday he said the energy reform bill would “define the process” for privatized and public-private partnerships (P3s). These so-called P3 projects would shift development costs onto the private sector, and in return typically would be paid fees from government to manage a property.

Another detail that’s been ignored: Privatizing San Juan International Airport was an omnishambles, even more than public-private partnerships usually are.


Most readers are familiar with Naomi Klein, her book Shock Doctrine, and its concept of disaster capitalism. Readers may not know, however, that a visit to Puerto caused Klein to reconsider her views. From Repeating Islands:

“It is a different form, maybe it’s not the shock doctrine; maybe it’s something else. Maybe I have to rewrite or write a new chapter called the trauma doctrine, because it is not shock; it is trauma that has been exploited, which is different and surprising,” added Klein, who ascribed the concept to conversations with Puerto Rican anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla, who suggested to Klein the idea of a sequel called “the doctrine of trauma.” Bonilla is a researcher and professor of anthropology and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University, as well as co-founder of the Puerto Rico Syllabus project, which collects important documents on the debt crisis in Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Ricans have been living the shock doctrine for a long time, and I think there have been different ways, different scenarios, indeed, starting with the economic crisis—and there have been several economic crises that have been exploited in Puerto Rico. But speaking of the most recent, and especially since PROMESA, you have a concrete example in which a state of exception[3] and emergency has been declared, which becomes an excuse to throw aside any pretense of self-government, to which is added an agenda of privatization and austerity that has just begun to be introduced,” she said. The case of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, about which she has already written for The Intercept, is so unusual that it has made her rethink the concept with which she has described so many scenarios in the past decade.

(Of course, all outcomes depend ultimately on the people of Puerto Rico, on and off the island, who are generally regarded as resilient; more so, perhaps, than the forces that colonized them.)

Oh, and I haven’t covered Puerto Rico’s debt situation at all; after all, debts that can’t be paid won’t be. What I do wonder, however, is this: Do the projections for Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan, as well as the business models for privatizing Puerto Rico’s schools and power grid, and the schemes of the vultures, take Puerto Rico’s downward population spiral into account? I’m guessing no.


[1] Once, we were a confident imperial power.

[2] Pushed by Trump’s DeVos, of course. More than likely, the same would have happened with Clinton.

[3] Hmm. Perhaps Puerto Rico’s Constitution isn’t the obstacle to school privatization I thought it was?

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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. allan

    “Without forests, there would be increased run-off of rain water and with it topsoil erosion.”

    Without forests, Puerto Rico will become another Haiti.

    1. rd

      The Haiti people deforested Haiti. The other half of the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic, still has decent forest cover which is why they never make the news when Haiti does. This was purely voluntary self-destruction. The photo of the Haiti/DR border is enlightening: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hispaniola

      So the forest will repair itself in PR if left to itself.

      1. ewmayer

        One of history’s ironies is, that, for all his brutality toward his own people, the late dictator Trujillo helped preserve Dominica’s forests from the rampant exploitation which has afflicted so many other tropical countries in the Caribbean and central/south America, typically under the aegis of “free market democracy”. (Which is not to say the Dominicans are better off than they would have been without that horrific era of their history, since we can’t run the experiment twice.)

        1. John Zelnicker

          March 12, 2018 at 1:37 am
          “Trujillo helped preserve Dominica’s forests”

          I’m sure it’s a typo or auto-correct gone wild, but Dominica is a different island in the Eastern Caribbean, some distance from Hispaniola.

          1. ewmayer

            I stand corrected – was incorrectly using Dominica as a shortened version of Dominican Republic. (I hope ‘Trujillo’ made it clear which island nation I meant. :)

      2. Darius

        This is blaming the victim. Haiti has been systematically impoverished for more than two centuries. Desperate people can’t focus on building for tomorrow. They’re too busy just eking out survival.

        1. Jamie

          Yes I agree. I had the occasion to look into the history of the island not too long ago. Not only has Haiti been exploited and embargoed, but the initial conditions of the two colonies were very different. Physically, the rainfall patters favored the Dominican Republic, which was lush to begin with compared to a much more arid Haiti. And socially, the population density of the Dominican Republic was much less. The French did exploit the Dominican Republic, but not nearly at the level that the Spanish exploited Haiti. The population of Haiti was something like six times that of DR during the colonial era. And that larger population needed to be supported on a much smaller land mass, less fertile, with less rainfall and vegetation to begin with. No story about how Dominicans are responsible and Haitians are not passes the sniff test. The bulk of the population was enslaved and had no choice in the matter. To call this “voluntary self destruction” completely erases history.

      3. JBird

        The French demanded compensation for the loss of their “property”, the freed slaves, and blockaded the country until Haiti agreed to it. The only real thing of value that they had was their forest and the last payment was sometime in the late 1940s.

  2. Oregoncharles

    What I don’t see is any discussion of the island’s resource base. How do people make a living there? I believe it was called “Rico” because there was gold, long gone; it is mountainous, making agriculture difficult. What do they have, besides tropical forest? In the long run, the forest will regrow, albeit minus some of its soil. In the short run, widespread salvage logging might make sense to provide some immediate income, but I’m not familiar with the ecology there. I gather it’s a network of small private holdings?

    So, following my contrarian tendencies: maybe the exodus, and the prior debt, is because the island can’t sustain as many people as it had. Of course, it may be hard to tell resource base from colonial status.

    1. rd

      I think the Republicans will be more interested in helping Puerto Rico once they see how all of the displaced people vote in the upcoming mid-term elections. Their votes don’t matter when they are on the island, but if they register in Florida….

      Although it is possible that the Republicans don’t know these are American citizens and eligible to vote in any state they take up residency in.

      1. John Rose

        A Democratic activist from the Dominican Republic in our local small city ruefully commented that Dominicans vote, Puerto Ricans do not; he wishes they did because it would end Republican control of the city offices.

  3. JBird

    Quoting one of the commentators in the WaPo article:

    My wife just returned from Fulton, TX and it is still a mess. None of the hotels have reopened including the major chain hotels. Many businesses have left the area leaving condemned buildings behind. Sure PR is in worse shape than TX and FL, but don’t think for a minute that FEMA did a good job anywhere.

    I am really hoping we get the Big One in California anytime soon.

    1. rd

      FEMA should only be providing short-term disaster support and some bridge loans to small businesses etc. If a chain hotel can’t get support from the parent or the franchisees didn’t have appropriate insurance etc., then that is a poor business model and indicates that the previous level of development in that area is unsustainable.

      The last thing we should be doing is reconstructing things in locations likely to have repeat events that can’t fund their own future reconstruction. This includes wildfires in California, Hurricane Sandy in NY/NJ, Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida. FEMA should only be reconstructing in a sustainable manner with future likely disasters in mid is acceptable. A recent episode on Reveal regarding the northern California wildfires is particularly depressing about how this will repeat in the future. We need to break the cycle of local governments approving unsustainable developments to get property taxes while relying on federal government for funds when everything goes wrong – the very definition of moral hazard. https://www.revealnews.org/episodes/warning-system-down-californias-deadliest-fires/

      1. bob

        “The last thing we should be doing is reconstructing things in locations likely to have repeat events that can’t fund their own future reconstruction.”

        You clearly don’t understand how FEMA works, and who it works for.

      2. JBird

        The last thing we should be doing is reconstructing things in locations likely to have repeat events that can’t fund their own future reconstruction.


        The entire Pacific coastline is on the Ring of Fire, which means California, Oregon, and Washington all get earthquakes, and very big ones. California is lucky that ours happens semi-regularly, which releases energy and reduces the damage; the two northern states earthquakes are less frequent but much more destructive. Coastal sinking and tsunami level destructive ones that make all the California earthquakes for the past 150 years, even the 1906 one, look like love taps. There are semi active volcanoes in the area too. Think Atlantis and Pompeii combined. Seriously, no joke or hyperbole, and it is overdue. The geological evidence as well a native American oral histories support this. Never mind that we are overdue for another 1906, or greater, level here in California.

        There is a good chance that Seattle will literally cease to exist, as well as the state governments of both northern states. Eventually, San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles will be heavily damaged and probably have heavy deaths.

        Just where should we evacuate 40-50 million people too?

      3. Dave Allison

        RD: Your overall message is absolutely on point and important. The current situation with PR is something of an anomaly but so are the other disasters in primarily Democratic States and even Democratic voting cities of red states on the mainland.

        Incompetence and underfunding have been endemic in FEMA for decades. The failure by congress, especially Republicans, to impose rational levels of premiums on flood, hurricane and tornado insurance turns FEMA into a government charity. That failure only compounds the Republican congressional refusal to impose laws, rules and regulations prohibiting rebuilding in any zone, or at least in any specific property, in which disaster rebuilding relief has occurred twice or more.

    2. Oregoncharles

      And yet the big corps are sitting on vast sums of “investment” money. There must be a business decision that places like Fulton and P.R. aren’t worth investing in.

      Why would you leave your hotel sitting empty, if it was making money for you before?

    3. JBird

      I am really hoping we do not get the Big One in California anytime soon.

      I blame a lack of coffee.


  4. Highway 200

    Of course, we here in PR are grateful to see any coverage of our plight, and yes, this post just scratches the surface. Previous posts failed to address an interesting fact, and I continue to mention that. Why are you, and perhaps Ms. Klein, not covering the situation involving the Queen of Ukraine, Natalie Jaresko, who is now the Empress of Puerto Rico at the annual salary of $625,000 plus massive perqs (no, not a typo)
    and is indeed the person calling the shots, not governor Ricardo Rossello.
    Again, we appreciate your attention to our disaster and the resulting massive emigration. Those interested in the fragility theories would do well to study what
    is going on in PR. It is quite plain that without the easy escape to Florida and other states, our dilemma would be greatly compounded. And the jerk in the White House
    taxed three things we need a lot of right now: PV panels, steel rebar, aluminum.
    Please shine a light on these idiotic acts.

  5. dbk

    Thank you for this “big picture” coverage, much appreciated.

    Re: education. Actually, charters are public schools (privately-operated, but nonetheless, theoretically “public”; vouchers are for private schools, and they are the Sec of Ed’s current favorite thing). Thus, the Blair Amendment, of which this appears to be PR’s version, cannot be used to oppose them.

    I was wondering whether the mass exodus could be considered an example of internally-displaced people (IDP) due to climate disaster, i.e. as internally-displaced climate refugees. Climate disasters are one obvious form of “trauma.”

    By the way, Representative Luis Gutierrez (IL-04) is leaving Congress to devote himself to relief/remediation of Puerto Rico.

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