By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The government of Puerto Rico finally acknowledged in Transformation and Innovation in the Wake of Devastation,a report posted online and filed with Congress Wednesday, that an additional 1427 people died in the four months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck, compared to the average for that period for the previous four years.
This number is more than twenty times higher than the previous, unrevised official death toll of 64 that remained unchanged, despite several independent assessments that reported much higher figures.
The report — which stretches to more than 400 pages– sets out the island’s recovery and reconstruction plan to Congress, with a total cost for funding Puerto Rico’s economic and disaster recovery of $125 billion (report. p. IX).
The New York Times was the first to report the story in Puerto Rican Government Acknowledges Hurricane Death Toll of 1,427:
The figures came from death registry statistics that were released in June, but which were never publicly acknowledged by officials on the island.
The increase was enormous, particularly considering that Puerto Rico’s population has declined considerably in the past few years.
Now, it’s not exactly news to anyone that the previous reported death toll was not only too low, but could have been avoided by a better response. Sustained and widespread power outages was one factor that caused many deaths. This prior post discussed the breakdown of emergency and hospital services, How Puerto Rico’s Death Toll Was Ignored, and Could Have Been Avoided; it was the second part of a Real News Network two-part series. The first part, Puerto Rico’s Uncounted Dead: Study Says Hurricane Maria Toll Far Higher Than Official Count, provided more detail on the impact of privatization on critical supplies like oxygen and medications, the lack of which also killed people. (This is just one of many posts on Puerto Rico’s suffering Lambert has posted since the hurricanes struck; see., e.g., here, here, here, and here, for a sample.)
Death Figures Still in Dispute
The government of Puerto Rico has pledged to update the official figures once a study it has commissioned by George Washington University is released later this summer (report, p. 30). Other studies have already been completed, making it more difficult that an obviously flawed or biased study would survive scrutiny.
As summarized by Vox in 1,427 deaths: Puerto Rico is coming clean about Hurricane Maria’s true toll:
A study by researchers at Harvard, published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that more than 4,600 Puerto Ricans may have died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. And, they wrote, the estimate of total deaths “is likely to be conservative since subsequent adjustments for survivor bias and household-size distributions increase this estimate to more than 5,000.” The only other US disaster on record with a higher death toll is the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900, when somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people died, the Harvard researchers noted. [Jerri-Lynn here: I refer interested readers to the study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria).]
Alexis Santos, a Puerto Rican demographer at Penn State who conducted his own analysis of mortality following the hurricane, also published a paper in the journal JAMA on August 2, with Jeffrey Howard of the University of Texas San Antonio, estimating the death toll at 1,139. The difference in the figures is due to slight differences in methodology in estimating deaths attributable to the storm and its aftermath, but they all show that the government initially underestimated the toll of the storm.
Yet at this stage, even these latest numbers should not be regarded as the official death count– which will wait on the results of the George Washington study, as reported by The Wall Street Journal in Puerto Rico: Hurricane Maria Death Toll May Have Topped 1,400:
The document notes that the deaths “may or may not be attributable” to Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which struck the island weeks earlier.
“We always anticipated that this number would increase as more official studies were conducted,” said Héctor Pesquera, secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety, on Thursday. But the figure of 1,427 “is not the official number of deaths,” he said. “That number was not the result of an independent study—it is simple math.”
Puerto Rico: Neoliberal Casualty
There is no question that the Trump administration’s response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico was appalling and inadequate. Yet regular readers know that conditions there were strained before the hurricane hit– as a consequence of austerity policies demanded by vulture funds, and Puerto Rico’s longstanding inability to declare bankruptcy (due to its status as a US territory) and achieve debt restructuring. Congress and the previous administrations fudged a “solution” to the island’s economic crisis– that surprise, surprise, failed to address the needs of its population, as discussed in this account in The Week, Thanks to Obama, Puerto Rico might never recover from Irma. The genesis of that framework cannot be attributed to Trump– who had yet to be elected– and it continues to hobble any possible recovery:
In June 2016, Congress and President Obama passed a bill supposedly to address the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, by imposing external dictatorship on the island. Called the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (or PROMESA), it placed an unelected seven-member board in total control of all important policy.
The supposed justification was to give the island some way to get through bankruptcy. In reality it has set the island up for a decade of mass unemployment and crisis — without remotely fixing the debt problem. It’s no accident the locals call the board “La Junta.”
As of September– before Maria struck– Puerto Rico’s bond indebtedness was $73 billion– translating to $17,000 per capita, according to CNBC. For more in this vein, see this September 14 post, Puerto Rico Is Getting Squeezed, and It Will Cost All of Us— after Irma but before Maria, and other posts can be found here and here; there are many more, so I encourage interested readers to search the site using the term “Puerto Rico”.
Yet despite the hurricanes, Puerto Rico remains constrained by the neoliberal playbook for dealing with its problems, thanks to PROMESA. (I am deliberately not delving into the weeds here to discuss any of the numerous pending legal challenges to this framework; see, e.g.,this WSJ account one lawsuit before one federal judge, Puerto Rico Bondholders Win Ruling Against U.S., and this NYT account, Puerto Rico Bankruptcy Judge Upholds Oversight Board Powers Over Government, for another).
What this means, though, is that unlike the city of Baltimore– see Baltimore Set To Be First Major US City to Ban Water Privatization—- Puerto Rico needs to rely on the privatization fairy to solve its acute power generation problems.
As Reuters reports in Puerto Rico utility debt restructuring deal points to path forward, earlier this month:
A preliminary deal with owners of more than $3 billion of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) bonds, announced late on Monday, puts the bankrupt utility on a tentative path toward transformation and privatization, but more challenges remain.[Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]
The restructuring agreement announced by a bondholders group largely made up of mutual funds and the utility would exchange existing bonds for new debt and link future payments to the island’s economic recovery.
The deal marks a major development in the government-owned utility’s four-year effort to restructure its debt. That process produced multiple proposals that were ultimately stymied, including one that was rejected by Puerto Rico’s federal oversight board last year.
This week, a deal was announced on restructuring roughly $18 billion in debt with Puerto Rico’s sales tax creditors, as reported by the Wall Street Journal in Puerto Rico Bondholders Agree on Sales-Tax Split:
The agreement, which requires court approval, would mark the largest consensual debt settlement negotiated with creditors since Puerto Rico entered a court-supervised bankruptcy last year. The Cofina debt stack would be slashed by 32%, saving Puerto Rico $17.5 billion in payments to bondholders compared with what they are currently owed.
Senior creditors would receive 93% of their claims in the form of new debt while junior holders would recover 56.4%. Overall recoveries across both Cofina debt classes total 74.5%, according to the settlement terms.
Puerto Rico’s federal oversight board supports the agreement, as do the largest mutual funds, bond insurers and hedge funds with claims against Cofina revenues, which are sales taxes collected by merchants on the island.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who is tangling with the oversight board over pension cuts and other austerity measures, also endorsed the terms.
Am I the only one who thinks, given the magnitude of Puerto Rico’s problems, that this is insane? A deal under which “Senior creditors would receive 93% of their claims in the form of new debt while junior holders would recover 56.4%. Overall recoveries across both Cofina debt classes total 74.5%, according to the settlement terms.” [emphasis added.]
Considering the natural disaster that has stuck the island, why should creditors be treated so generously?
It seems obvious that after the hurricanes, the need for comprehensive debt restructuring is even more urgent. And I’m not the only one to think so. Senators Warren and Sanders in July introduced a debt restructuring bill, the US Territorial Relief Act, which is summarized in this CNBC story, Sens. Warren and Sanders introduce bill that would slash Puerto Rico’s debt:
The proposal… counts Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California as co-sponsors. The bill “provides an avenue to comprehensive debt relief for Puerto Rico and other hurricane-ravaged U.S. territories so that they have a chance to get back on their feet,” according to the sponsors.
“Greedy Wall Street vulture funds must not be allowed to reap huge profits off the suffering and misery of the Puerto Rican people for a second longer. It is time to end Wall Street’s stranglehold on Puerto Rico’s future, return control of the island to the people of Puerto Rico and give the territory the debt relief it so desperately needs to rebuild with dignity,” said Sanders, I-Vt.
“Puerto Rico was already being squeezed before Hurricane Maria hit and will now have to rebuild under the weight of crushing debt. Our bill will give territories that have suffered an extraordinary crisis a route to comprehensive debt relief and a chance to get back on their feet,” said Warren, D-Mass. “Disaster funding and the other resources in struggling territories’ budgets must not go to Wall Street vulture funds who snapped up their debt. Congress should pass this legislation right away — our fellow U.S. citizens are counting on us.”
As Yves has noted before, in a post title that succinctly cuts to the crux: Wall Street Got a Bailout, Why Not Puerto Rico?
Now, I will admit: I have not studied this bill. So it, too, may be far from a panacea. But surely some form of comprehensive restructuring is necessary at this point. Like Medicare for All and free college, such a solution falls into the category of sensible measures that alas seem to be beyond what our broken, money-riddled political system can achieve at present.