Puerto Rico Could Take Decades to Rebuild & Needs Our Help Now

It has been a week since Hurricane Maria slammed into the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, with winds near 150 mph. Maria was the strongest storm to hit the island since 1926, and the level of devastation is unprecedented.

The Category 4 Hurricane made landfall on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast early in the morning of September 20, but even a week later the extent of the damage is only beginning to come into focus. Slate quoted Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jennniffer Gonzalez saying “The devastation in Puerto Rico has set us back nearly 20 to 30 years.” Most homes and businesses have suffered some level of damage. CNN reported that most of the island remains without power and communications services and food, water, and medical supplies are at critical levels. The satellite photo below shows the power grid before and after Maria struck.

The San Juan airport suffered severe damage to key navigational equipment, and the airport that serves about 9 million passengers a year is without air conditioning and low on supplies of food and water. Only about ten commercial flights a day are leaving for the U.S. mainland, down from the normal schedule of 176 flights a day. The airport’s priority are flights bringing in relief supplies.

The U.S. military is using the Savannah Air National Guard base as a hub for ferrying relief supplies to the island, using C-130 transport planes which can carry some 17,000 pounds of supplies per trip.  Puerto Rico, home to some 3.4 million American citizens, lies some 1,150 miles off the Florida coast.

The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, said that there are currently 16 Navy and Coast Guard ships around Puerto Rico with at least another ten on the way, including the USNS Comfort, a 1000-bed hospital ship. There are currently some 2,500 U.S. military personnel on the ground, and that number is expected to double over the next few days.

Damage estimates are only beginning to come in, but preliminary estimates are in the $10 to $30 billion range. This number is on top of the estimated $1 billion damage that Hurricane Irma caused just two weeks earlier.

The Trump administration, which has received good marks for its response to Hurricane Harvey and Irma, has come under criticism in recent days for not putting forth the same level of concern for Puerto Rico. Former candidate Hillary Clinton questioned if the President understood the obligation to help the U.S. territory. “I’m not sure he knows that Puerto Ricans are American citizens,” Mrs. Clinton said in an interview earlier this week.

Trump received criticism for what some saw as insensitivity to Puerto Rico in a tweet he sent earlier this week, when he appeared to tie Puerto Rico’s debt to the damage caused by Maria.

On Tuesday, President Trump announced that he plans to visit Puerto Rico next week, nearly two weeks after the storm struck. The President had visited Texas a week after Hurricane Harvey and visited Florida eight days after Hurricane Irma.

It appears that the country as a whole has been less interested in Hurricane Maria than in Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. This graph from Google Trends tracks the searches for the three hurricanes and shows the public had a much greater interested over the two hurricanes that threatened the U.S. mainland.

In blue: hurricane Irma. In red: Maria. In yellow: Harvey. In green: Jose

As the damage done to Puerto Rico comes into clearer focus, relief efforts are ramping up. The “One America Appeal” fundraising campaign which was created by all five living former U.S. presidents to help victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma has added Hurricane Maria to its fundraising efforts.

According to a recent Economist/YouGov Poll, only 43 percent of Americans are aware that residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens. That number is likely to increase substantially over the coming weeks, as a result of the coverage of the damage that Hurricane Maria has generated – one silver lining in what else is a major disaster for Puerto Rico.

Congress will be under increasing pressure to include relief to Puerto Rico at a level similar to what is provided to Texas and Florida. Additionally, court proceedings are just beginning on the debt relief program that Congress authorized earlier this year, which acknowledged that Puerto Rico was essentially bankrupt and more than $70 billion in debt. The economic hardships created by Hurricane Maria and increased public awareness of the island’s plight are likely to result in more favorable terms for Puerto Rico, which could hopefully have a long-lasting economic impact for the island that outweighs the short-term disaster relief.

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