Columnist Jonathan Wright: Massive rebuild needed for Puerto Rico

  • Destroyed communities are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 28. The powerful storm has resulted in a near-total shutdown of the U.S. territory’s economy that could last for weeks and has many people running low on cash and worrying that it will become even harder to survive on this storm-ravaged island. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Dead horses lie on the side of the road Sept. 22 after the passing of Hurricane Maria, in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. Farmers fear that Puerto Rico's small but diverse agricultural sector may never recover from the sucker punch delivered to one of the island's economic bright spot. AP FILE PHOTO

  • This undated photo provided by Hector Alejandro Santiago shows his farm in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, destroyed by Hurricane Maria. For 21 years Santiago raised poinsettias, orchids and other ornamental plants which were sold to major retailers. In a matter of hours Maria wiped it away.  AP FILE PHOTO

  • People sit on both sides of a destroyed bridge that crossed over the San Lorenzo de Morovis river, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Morovis, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 27. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Jonathan Aponte walks with a gas can up the road to his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 26.  AP FILE PHOTO

  • Downed power lines and debris are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 26.  AP FILE PHOTO

  • Jose Garcia Vicente walks through rubble of his destroyed home, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 25.  AP FILE PHOTO

  • National Guardsmen arrive at Barrio Obrero in Santurce to distribute water and food to those affected by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 24.  AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 10/3/2017 9:27:36 PM

Immediate urgency and dire complexity are coming together in Puerto Rico at a fearsome pace. The post-Hurricane Maria issues are vastly magnified over a similar mainland event.

The plight of an island, and this one in particular with nearly four million Americans in residence, can rapidly deteriorate into a humanitarian, health and economic crisis the likes of which we have not seen on American soil. That decline is underway and accelerating.

Mainlanders sometimes have a sparse understanding of the circumstances, and sometimes more opinion than knowledge regarding Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rico. I am no expert, but I am a fan of the beautiful and complicated, loving and spirited people of Puerto Rico based on a decade of time spent on the island, and home ownership in Loiza on the North Coast. I am also a deep admirer of the outsized participation of Puerto Ricans in our armed services over the last 75 years, their incredible devotion to faith and family.

Ethnically, Puerto Ricans are the mix that the world citizens and Americans are becoming, according to recent studies by National Geographic and others. Statistically, Puerto Ricans are 17 percent Taino, the native peoples prior to the Arawak invasion, who lived on Puerto Rico and other islands for perhaps 3,500 years.

The rest of the genetics is a mix of immigrants, sailors, fallen royalty, farmers, dreamers, drifters, fortune seekers, artists, investors, inventors, indentured servants, slaves and bandits, like their neighbors to the north. In detail this includes East Indian, Chinese, West African, Cape Verdean, Latin American, Iberian, Northern European, Italian, Eastern European, just for starters. In short, Americans.

Our condo buildings, masonry construction to solid standards, are fine, though without power or water or sewer for some time ahead. However, in Puerto Rico, as in many parts of our country and the larger world, poorer residents live in lower-lying, more vulnerable areas, and their homes, if owned, are usually less durable and usually uninsured. Over and over, we see the wood-framed roofs and upper floors torn off and crushed into kindling.

The kind of winds that lashed parts of Puerto Rico, sustained forces in excess of 150 mph, can lift an automobile and smash it into a building. A person cannot stand up. Debris hitting a person will likely sever their body at that location. What was destroyed was not a row of flimsy shacks for the most part but ordinary buildings in the path of a once-a-century storm.

Historical context

A bit of historical context. In 1898, the U.S. Marines came ashore on the West Coast of Puerto Rico and took the island from Spain, which had been the mother country for hundreds of years, in a dubious rollout of United States imperial aspirations. The change was neither requested nor welcome, nor was it strongly resisted.

Before the Spanish arrived with Columbus, Portuguese and Chinese travelers and settlers were on the island. Many Puerto Ricans, through culture and language, maintain strong ties to Spain. San Juan, with its magnificent harbor, was disputed and fought over among the Spanish, English and Dutch for centuries.

The U.S. military, and also industrial companies, have used Puerto Rico as a Caribbean base for decades. Operation Bootstrap, a U.S. government policy, brought rural people to greater San Juan and the growing urban centers, where they now live largely in low-lying areas, and no longer can grow food. It is the American model pasted onto this island culture.

Within two generations, Puerto Rico went from being largely self-sufficient in food to being dependent on imports for 90 percent of its food. It’s a great plan for Kellogg’s and Del Monte, but not so great for Puerto Rico. While there is a resurgence of agricultural activity, it is nascent at best, and that sector has suffered devastating setbacks with Maria.

Large-scale farming for bananas and pineapples is centered on the Southern plains, and artisan coffee-growing thrives higher up in the Cordillera Central. These have also been decimated by the storm, with years ahead to recover production.

Military development, particularly on the east end of the island and on the island of Vieques just to the east, brought massive infusions of cash and investment and civilian jobs. It also brought devastating industrial pollution to poor barrios of greater San Juan and around the island. Twenty Superfund sites await attention.

With the end of the cold war, Roosevelt Roads Naval Station closed, and much of it remains in decay. The main runway, now servicing Ceiba, Fajardo, Humacao and the Spanish Virgins, is a great asset. It was rebuilt into a civilian airport largely with borrowed money.

The military funds are gone, replaced with an 11.5 percent sales tax. Gone are the days when Puerto Rico was the shopping center for the Caribbean and northern Latin America. As recently as seven years ago, prosperous people from down island, and from Columbia and Venezuela, would make a day or overnight shopping trip to Puerto Rico. But no more.

No tax revenue

Income tax is not an option because there is no infrastructure for this collection. Puerto Ricans do not vote in national elections, and do not pay U.S. income tax. In any case, nearly half live below the federal poverty line.

That leaves property taxes. With perhaps 60 percent of the buildings damaged or destroyed, and the economy at a standstill, tax collections have disappeared. Charges for basic electric, sewer and water are already many times what we in New England are accustomed to, but with no services, no offices open, no mail or communications, those revenues have stopped. The commonwealth is, today, completely out of cash and credit options, an unprecedented condition.

Thirty-year tax holidays in the 1970s brought companies from all over the world, particularly pharmaceuticals, in a grand development strategy. Some remain, but others, like Hess Oil, simply abandoned ship and left their sites in ruins. West of Ponce, hundreds of acres of refinery machinery lies rusting, miles of asbestos pipe wrap swinging in the wind.

Now look at a map of the island. The government is responsible for all transportation, for policing hundreds of miles of porous open-water borders. They must underwrite health care and hospitals and clinics, which are built and renovated with debt. They operate a major university, heavily subsidized because of the island income situation.

In the last four years, new technical-vocational schools have been built to try to elevate workforce skills, but now stand empty because there is no money for staff. Many services and functions that a mainland state would not encounter must be addressed.

And, surely, the government is prone to corruption. And surely there is a wealthy elite and middle class that do much better than their fellows.

This all relates to pre-Maria Puerto Rico and provides a backdrop for what is upon the island now. Going forward, new long-term debt cannot be shouldered. Existing debt is owned in significant part by Puerto Rican retirement funds, so reneging on those payments will produce a tidal wave, not a ripple effect, on otherwise self-sufficient citizens. North of Rincon, a concrete dome painted like a beach ball marks an early decommissioned nuclear station.

Massive rebuild needed

To avoid a mass exodus to the mainland and all the dislocations that would result, and the far greater expense of those accommodations, a massive rebuild must be undertaken at a scale not yet envisioned. Seabees and Army engineers need to be on the island immediately to clear transportation routes. Military-scale debris removal and off-island disposal must be arranged and carried out.

Solar installations, already prevalent, must be expanded for greater resiliency, and the grid rebuilt. It is important to remember that the grid has declined through deferred maintenance, which is a harbinger of what is to come on the mainland if we do not start to think more in terms of sustainability and resilience, and spend the funds to fix infrastructure!

Islands are far more complicated. Supply lines are not just a truck ride away. Water cannot be brought in tank trucks. The tropical climate will hasten the development of pestilence and disease at a frightening rate. Lost foliage and tree cover will mean more erosion and higher ground temperatures, because of lack of shade. Lack of operating schools will leave more young people at loose ends. Lack of funds to pay police officers will open floodgates to all manner of crime.

Old debt needs to be reclassified and underwritten by the federal government. Destroyed housing needs to be rebuilt to better standards, and without new debt for the owners. Otherwise, they cannot afford to do it.

This is not like Houston, which ignored calls for stormwater management, wetlands protection, zoning, and coastal buffers for 100 years. It is not like Houston, one of the richest cities in America. It is not like Texas with a large and vocal congressional presence. It is not like south Florida with its vast wealth and commerce.

Puerto Rico has one non-voting adviser in the House of Representatives. It is up to all of us to be sure that this natural disaster does not become a devastating refugee crisis right within our own borders. Preventing that will take an effort that the Trump administration is unable to articulate and implement so far.

Let the Congress prove to all of us that these fellow citizens of ours are due the care and support of citizenship, not the step-down, also-ran, never-enough approach that increasingly defines our national policies towards people of color. The time for citizen help is now. The time for dramatic and unprecedented leadership in Washington is now.

Demand that Congress act quickly and deeply to expand the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mission way beyond gas cans and cots and tarps. Blankets for people on cots in unventilated conference centers in 90-degree, humid heat is not useful after the first 48 hours. The population of Puerto Rico is 10 times that of New Orleans, just as a benchmark.

A quick look south to Mexico City can give us a glimpse of what kinds of natural disasters are in store on the West Coast of North America. We need, as a nation, to be much more prepared and proactive, and pay forward the investments needed to relieve suffering and stimulate economic security.

And in the short run Washington must be decisive and brave. We’ll see.

Jonathan A. Wright, of Northampton, is the founder and senior adviser of Wright Builders.

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