The Bold Faced Blog™

March 22, 2018

Quo Vadis Puerto Rico? Hurricane María, Six Months Later

Posted 1 years 207 days ago by Lianabel Oliver

It has been six months or, to be exact 186 days, since hurricane María ravaged the island of Puerto Rico. We are still reeling from the impact of the storm, physically, psychologically, and financially. Hurricane María affected us all in one way or another — the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick. No one was exempt from the effects of the storm and its aftermath.

I would venture to state that as a country, we are suffering from a collective trauma that manifests itself in many ways: an increase in suicide levels and mental health disorders, memory lapses, inability to concentrate, panic attacks, sleeping disorders, and a general depressive state. Everyone has a story to tell and María is still a topic of conversation in any gathering of Puerto Ricans. For the Puerto Rican diaspora, María was doubly traumatic, as they were cut off from their family and friends during and after the storm, uncertain as to their safety or well-being.

After 186 days, we are still in an emergency mode. The recovery process has been painfully slow and disjointed. There has been a lot of finger pointing and blame among the state and federal agencies involved in the recovery process: the Puerto Rico government, FEMA, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Corruption has reared its ugly head with contracts awarded by FEMA and the Puerto Rico government. The Whitefish scandal, a $300 million contract awarded to a two-person company operating out of a cabin in Montana five days after the hurricane, to this day remains unexplained, and brought the credibility of the Puerto Rican government to an all-time low.

Every day we are bombarded with misinformation and confusing statistics on how the recovery is progressing. From a layperson’s perspective and someone who has no government ties, here is my assessment of where we are based on news reports in the media and my own personal experience.

  • We have an economy in shambles. Prior to María, we were mired in a 10-year recession and an unsustainable public debt. María and President Trump’s tax reform put the nails on our coffin. Many small businesses have been unable to absorb the incremental operating costs or the loss of clients as a result of the hurricane and have closed for good. Medium to large corporations have also suffered significant losses and have laid off or furloughed workers. Some multinationals have packed up their bags for good and there are strong rumors that more will follow.
  • We are experiencing a mass migration to the US, particularly of our skilled professionals and youth, who are looking for better job prospects and a better quality of life. This migration affects all aspects of our economy and further erodes the government tax base. This situation will make it more difficult for the government to meet the financial commitments made to the Fiscal Control Board, which may result in more severe austerity measures as a result. Accountants call this situation the “death spiral.”
  • Austerity measures seem to apply only to the people of Puerto Rico, not to those who are chartered to lead by example. The Fiscal Control Board has just proposed an increase to their budget from $60 to $80 million. The compensation package of their Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, exceeds $1 million. Government contracts and highly paid government jobs continue to flow for the politically faithful, while the rights of teachers, police officers, health professionals, and public and private-sector employees get trampled upon.
  • According to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), about 5% of their customers remain without power. However, the percentage seems much higher when you listen to the news media, and the tales of friends, family, and acquaintances. Power outages, ranging from 1 to 12 hours or more, are our new normal and happen almost on a weekly basis. After 6 months, this situation takes an enormous toll on the physical, emotional and financial well-being of our people.
  • About 10,000 people still have no running water.
  • We do not have clear accounting of the direct and indirect deaths caused by María. The official death count remains stubbornly around 64, however the unofficial death count is over 1,000. Almost every Puerto Rican has a family member, friend, or acquaintance who died in the aftermath of the storm. Many of our elderly, who were doing well prior to María, died in the next 90 days, unable to withstand the hardships of living without power, water, and the destruction of their way of life.
  • We have no accounting of the accidents that have occurred in the aftermath of María. I personally was a victim of María suffering a serious cycling accident when I got entangled in some cables on the road. In the hospital, there were victims of car accidents because there were no traffic lights, elderly people that had fallen in the darkness of the night, people that were burned trying to work their gas lamps, stoves, or emergency generators, and pedestrians who got run over. The list goes on and on.
  • There are still major intersections without working traffic lights. Traffic lights are slowly being restored but driving remains a perilous affair.
  • The food supply is stable, but there are still many articles that are simply unavailable at the supermarket. You buy what is available, with a limited choice of brand or variety. Sometimes I find myself “stocking up” on a particular article, because I do not know if I will find them in the store the following week when I return.
  • Telecom has also been restored in the majority of the island, although forty percent (40%) of the antennas are still powered by emergency generators. Internet access continues to be spotty and, in some places, it is nonexistent. Service interruptions are just another part of our new normal.
  • María produced significant damage to our roads and highways. We have become very skilled at swerving and swaying to avoid the large potholes on the streets and damage to our vehicles. Driving at night, if you do not know where the potholes are, can result in a flat tire or worse.
  • There is still a large amount of debris and damage: bent and fallen poles, cables on the side of the roads, fallen trees and branches, damaged road signs, raised sidewalks, and so forth. Last weekend, a couple returning from a family festival in a mountain town was killed as a telephone pole came crashing down on their car. Blue tarps can be seen everywhere and from an airplane, it is an impressive sight.
  • When you go up the winding roads to the center of the island, it is almost as if the hurricane happened yesterday. Abandoned houses, blue tarps, fallen or low-lying electrical cables, no power, and lots of debris on the sides of the roads.

So, the question for us, as Puerto Ricans, is: quo vadis?* Many Puerto Ricans have already answered this question. They have either left the island with no plans to return or are in the middle of settling their affairs to say “sayonara.”**

To those of us who choose to stay, we continue with the struggle of everyday living, trying to contribute in whichever way we can, big and small, to the recovery process. There are a lot of good people in Puerto Rico, and many people that have come from abroad to lend a helping hand, for which we are grateful. Nonprofits and community-based organizations have risen to the occasion, tending to the needs of their surrounding communities, providing food, shelter, clothing, water, and even fuel. These organizations and their leaders give me hope for a better future.

For me, I take life one day at a time, with the clear realization that hurricane season starts on June 1st on an island that psychologically, physically, and financially, will not be able to withstand even a Category 1 storm. With the US media no longer focused on Puerto Rico and no political muscle in Washington D.C. where policy decisions are being made, we have truly become the forgotten island.

*Quo vadis is a phrase in Latin that means “where are you going?”

**Sayonara — Goodbye in Japanese


Categories: categoryOther

No Comments

Add Comment

All Entries