The Devastation Caused by the Two Hurricanes

Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico on September 6. Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm, struck the island on September 20 and was the most powerful storm to hit the island in nearly a century.

President Donald Trump had pledged a quick recovery, but experts said it could take months. Increasing criticism was made that the response by the U.S. government had been sluggish.

After three months, large areas of Puerto Rico are still without electricity. According to the latest government reports, so far only 60.4 percent of the pre-storm power grid load has been restored.

The storms destroyed the island’s electricity infrastructure and crippled its cellular grid, which greatly impeded the coordination of relief efforts. Without any internet service, and practically no telephone service, many on the island are grappling with growing health concerns due to lack of reliable access to medical care, supplies and clean water.

Among the most lingering dangers is the lack of clean water which has forced residents to gather water from natural springs and ponds wherever possible. Public health experts worry that this problem will make the recovery even more deadly as sanitary conditions worsen.

While agriculture is no longer a primary driver of Puerto Rico’s economy, the destruction of the vast majority of crops on the island means growers in the coffee, plantains and other popular agricultural industries have lost their entire livelihoods after the two storms.

The elderly residents in San Juan and elsewhere on the island with no power who have chronic medical conditions are suffering in more ways than their neighbors. Many nursing homes have no power. The failure to re-establish functioning telephone networks and transportation systems in many areas makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get regular medical care. Fire safety systems are inoperable, posing special dangers for those who cannot easily escape.

There have been falls in dimly lit apartments. Special diets that could no longer be followed. Medical interventions, prescription drugs and treatments missed or delayed.

The huge humanitarian effort to assist and rescue residents continues tirelessly.1

Number of Casualties

As previously reported, the government in Puerto Rico reported a relatively low death toll as a direct result of Hurricane Maria. The official death toll at the end of October was 54 but the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, at that time had warned the total would be much higher.2

Daily mortality data from Puerto Rico’s vital statistics bureau indicate a significantly higher number of deaths after Maria hit the island – 1,052 more people than usual died. The analysis compared the number of deaths for each day in 2017 with the average of the number of deaths for the same days in 2015 and 2016.

“Before the hurricane, I had an average of 82 deaths daily,” Wanda Llovet, the director of the Demographic Registry in Puerto Rico, said in a mid-November interview. “That changes from September 20 to the 30th. Now I have an average of 118 deaths daily.”

Records from Puerto Rico’s government show that some of the leading causes of deaths in September were diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, although the causes of deaths are still pending for 313 of the September deaths.

The method used to count official storm deaths varies by state and locality. Puerto Rico has indicated it is willing to revise the death count upward.

The New York Times estimates that in the three weeks after Hurricane Maria, the death toll was 739. If all these additional deaths were to be counted as related to the hurricane, it would make Maria the sixth deadliest hurricane in the last 150 years.

The Center for Investigative Journalism published its own estimate on December 7 finding that nearly 1000 more people than usual died in the months of September and October.3

Following public debate over the Trump administration’s initial reluctance to deploy the military hospital ship the U.S.N.S. Comfort from its berth in Virginia, the Comfort arrived in Puerto Rico two weeks into the disaster, after some of the medical urgency had abated. Its mission and capabilities were opaque to many doctors on the island. The ship lacked the ability to treat some important areas of need and the complex referral and admission procedures made little sense to a battered island. After its 53-day deployment, few patients were admitted, a total of 290. An additional 1,625 people were treated aboard the ship as outpatients, all at no cost.4

And the misery, suffering and deaths continue.

The Economic and Financial Situation

In October, President Trump proclaimed that the island’s debt will have to be wiped out (which his administration has since walked away from).

In the coming decade, the entire debt will need to be massively written down to make the island’s recovery feasible.

As previously reported, Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2017 under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). The island has unpaid debt outstanding of $74 billion and an underfunded $50 billion pension fund.

The Oversight Board created under PROMESA had approved a fiscal plan that provided a radical reduction in debt service over the next decade, cutting payments to creditors by about 80 percent. The plan was silent about permanent write-downs and the extent of longer-term debt service, leaving uncertainty over the island’s future obligations – even though any realistic forecast of Puerto Rico’s output implied that the island would need a substantial debt write-down.

Hurricane Maria leaves no doubt that Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan must be rethought. Revenue will be far lower than expected, and thus far, the U.S. government’s response has provided inadequate funding for recovery and reconstruction. Since Maria, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, have left for Florida, and forecasts project a 10 to 15 percent decline in the island’s 3.4 million population. Absent an effective recovery plan, the decrease in tax revenue capacity will become permanent.

What is needed now, along with much needed federal funds for reconstruction, is a debt write-down in a court of law. Debt relief is the basis for a recovery that could lift the economy out of recession, attract young families back to the island and restore hope to the 3.4 million residents who call Puerto Rico home.5

Endnotes

  1. Fink, Sheri, “Seniors in San Juan, Lacking Power and in Peril,” The New York Times, December 11, 2017 and BBC News.com, “Six graphics that sum up Puerto Rico disaster,” October 12, 2017.
  2. Hernandez, Daniela, “In Puerto Rico, Health Concerns Grow,” The Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2017.
  3. Robles, Frances, Kenan Davis, Sheri Fink, and Sarah Almukhtar, “Official Count of Storm’s Toll Appears Short,” The New York Times, December 9, 2017.
  4. Robles, Frances and Sheri Fink, “Amid Puerto Rico Disaster, Hospital Ship Admitted Just 6 Patients a Day,” The New York Times, December 6, 2017.
  5. Guzman, Martin, Joseph E. Stiglitz and Antonio Weiss, “Don’t expect debt payments from Puerto Rico any time soon,” The Washington Post, December 11, 2017.