Blackout and bankrupt — Puerto Rico needs mainland help

Blackout and bankrupt — Puerto Rico needs mainland help
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Today, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island, Puerto Rico should be in the midst of a recovery process, instead power is out for the entire island.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, reports that 100 percent of the electricity distribution system remains damaged, leaving 3.4 million Americans in darkness. Of the 69 hospitals on the island, 58 went without fuel or power for more than a week.

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The cellular phone network is recovering, but remains almost entirely non-existent. More than 50 percent of the islanders (more than 1 million people) can’t access clean water.

 

The official death toll from the floods and winds brought by Hurricane Maria was 16 — each a tragedy, but a number that was blessedly small for such a strong storm. However, the failure to respond quickly means that number will rise as vulnerable people will start to die from exposure to the persistent tropical heat, disease and the lack of medical care.

Hurricane Maria was simply the knockout blow to the island’s already enfeebled economy. The most consequential damage from the storm was the failure of the electricity grid. Even without extreme weather, the grid was already grinding to a halt under the weight of decades of mismanagement, bankruptcy and an aged, dirty fuel mix.

Now with Maria’s devastation, the 3.4 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico face their direst challenge yet, losing hope of aid and long-term recovery. This catastrophe may solidify the mass exodus from Puerto Rico, unless long-term reconstruction commitments are made.

Our hope is that the shock of Maria’s devastation offers the chance to revitalize Puerto Rico’s economy, build back better and once again make the U.S. territory “la isla del encanto,” the enchanted island of the Caribbean.

The first step is to invigorate the military response. Puerto Rico, long host to U.S. military bases, should once again play host to the U.S. military — this time around to lead disaster relief and rebuilding efforts. No other unit of the Federal government has the logistical resources to respond.

Already, the Marines have deployed to clear roads, but more should be done. A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier can produce 400,000 gallons of fresh water every day from seawater — sufficient capacity to distribute huge amounts to those without clean water. The morale boost to Puerto Rico as well as neighboring islands from seeing a relief flotilla and boots on the ground will demonstrate U.S. humanitarian commitments to its citizens and neighbors.

Secondly, Puerto Rico needs financial support for recovery. Congress should immediately boost financial resources from FEMA to Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico now, FEMA is using funds appropriated for Hurricane Harvey relief.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s staggering debt burden means that it cannot be expected to meet the usual cost-share requirement for rebuilding — it would be appalling to leave Puerto Rico further in debt after this disaster. An affirmative measure of support from Congress would foster a sense of community between Puerto Rico and the rest of the country — they need to know they are not an island unto themselves.

The third step is for Congress to immediately and permanently repeal the Jones or Merchant Marine Act, which needlessly strangles shipments to Puerto Rico by requiring U.S. flagged vessels. The Jones Act compounds the landed costs of goods on the island, including food, relief materials and, insidiously, fuel oils used to power the electricity grid.

While the Trump administration has waived the Jones Act temporarily, permanently and immediately lifting the Jones Act would instead signal a reinvestment in the island’s economy not only during acute disaster relief efforts, but long term. 

Long term, the silver lining in Hurricane Maria’s dark clouds, is the opportunity to build back better. A changing climate means that we all have to prepare for more intense storms with greater damage.

As the southernmost U.S. territory, Puerto Rico should be an emblem of U.S. economic competitiveness, environmental resiliency and a regional leader. Instead, the island, once a case study in diversified island economies, is now a bankrupt, uncompetitive and broken place. From these ashes, the Singapore of the Caribbean can emerge.

Modernizing Puerto Rico’s energy matrix is at the center of this island revival. Taking measures to improve clean generation and distribution on the island requires privatizing the public utility, restructuring public debt, and broadening incentives to investors committed to job creation and reindustrialization. Despite incredible odds, the undying spirit of Puerto Ricans can prevail — provided the U.S. proves true to our motto: Out of many we are truly one.

BGen Stephen Cheney USMC (Ret) was the former inspector general of the Marine Corps and now serves as the CEO of the D.C. think tank American Security Project.

Dante Disparte, a native of Puerto Rico, is the founder and CEO of Risk Cooperative. He is chairman of the Business Council for American Security with the American Security Project and is the Co-author of the 2016 book "Global Risk Agility and Decision Making."