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As Long as We Remember...

September 19, 2018

A Look at Puerto Rico

Patricia A. Kelly

President Donald Trump recently made a huge misstatement on Twitter about Puerto Rico. The suggestion that 3,000 estimated deaths “didn’t happen” is ludicrous. Of course, more people died than the number at the time of his post-hurricane visit.


Too bad his initial response to information, or misinformation, is to defend himself, in this case, as so often, unnecessarily.


Puerto Rico, an island with a population of 3,000,000 people, became U.S. property in 1898 when we invaded the island during the Spanish American War. At that time, during a brief period in our history, we were picking up islands and countries. Fortunately, we came to our senses.


Rather than returning to independence and its’ history of being conquered by country after country, Puerto Rico became a commonwealth, a semi-autonomous member of the United States. Although the chief executive of Puerto Rico is the United States president, it is run by an elected governor.


Under the constitution approved by the U.S. Congress in the 1950s, the structure of government is much like that of the mainland. The United States is responsible for roads, defense, foreign policy, communications, etc., and the local government runs internal affairs. Puerto Rican American citizens do not vote for president, and do not pay federal taxes.


Puerto Ricans remain divided over whether to remain a commonwealth, become a state, or become independent of the United States.


It was never a marriage made in heaven.


Hurricane Maria, in September 2017, essentially destroyed Puerto Rico. The island completely lost the power grid, water service, and telecommunications. Out of 16,700 miles of roads, just four hundred were open, the others blocked by landslides or debris.


According to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), one year later power, water and telecommunications have been 99.9 percent restored.


Before Maria, the Puerto Rican government had declared bankruptcy, finding itself $70,000,000,000 in debt. The year before that, the primary power company, after years of performing no infrastructure maintenance, did the same. Half a million people had left Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland before the storm, due to this financial breakdown. Another 100,000 left after Maria, although some are returning.


Cleaning up after a hurricane, though hugely difficult, is straightforward on the mainland of the U.S. We have infrastructure. There are power companies, telephone poles, buildings in sensitive areas with safeguards in case of storms and earthquakes, safe evacuation shelters. We have privately owned equipment, such as chainsaws, boats and trucks, and volunteers willing to use them to assist in government relief efforts.


On Puerto Rico, it’s a different story. Rather than repairs, complete re-building of infrastructure was required. All relief supplies had to come by boat or aircraft, with airports out of commission, and only one military base on the island. Availability of some supplies was limited due to massive needs from prior hurricanes, and it was very difficult to transport anything to those in need, with almost all roads blocked. It was a nightmare.


One must consider the reality that Puerto Rico, before the storm, was run like a third world country, with the attendant corruption and lack of concern for citizens. As in many Third World countries, roads were poor, infrastructure was poor, and houses were poorly built. It was warm and sunny there, after all, and no Category 4 hurricane had hit in 84 years. You might say that local leadership got away with their classic Third World behavior until the bankruptcies. Our federal government couldn’t seem to manage to deal effectively with these problems.


Puerto Rican American citizens deserve the same treatment as all other citizens of the United State with the same concern. No commonwealth of the United States should allow its’ American citizens to be subject to such corruption that their government becomes bankrupt.


There was no effective hurricane preparation. There was totally failing infrastructure in the face of lack of maintenance. Houses, lacking building requirements to provide extra safety during national disasters, were completely vulnerable.


Surely there have been mistakes and flaws in the effort to restore this island’s function after Maria, but, overall, a reasonable job has been done thus far, and remains underway, just as it does in mainland areas which have suffered recent hurricanes.


The catastrophe of Maria should open our eyes, and lead to changes that can insure the future of these Americans. Perhaps this island should become a state, or, after re-building, and with some support, become an independent nation. Returning to the status quo is not an option.


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