Soldiering on With Puerto Rico as it Struggles to Recover

Soldiering on With Puerto Rico as it Struggles to Recover

[UPDATED 10/1]

After documenting the scale of the infrastructure damage to Southeast Texas and Florida from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, respectively, as a way to keep up with the efforts to rebuild infrastructure, I’ve been compiling notes on the situation facing Puerto Rico as residents work through the day-to-day of coping with an island devastated by the two major hurricanes in a short time span.

Hurricane Maria’s damage to Puerto Rico is in another class altogether compared to Hurricane Harvey and Irma’s damage to the southeast U.S. region.

Puerto Rico’s unique problems — an island territory with no contiguous borders for supplies to traverse, crumbling infrastructure and a government in bankruptcy, have combined to make this challenge more acute for responders.

But soldier on they do, literally with soldiers, sailors, engineers and FEMA response teams spreading out to help the island territory get back on its feet.

Here’s my situation report on Puerto Rico so far:

Highlights:

  • Death toll at 16, more expected as rescue teams move inland (FEMA, news reports)
  • The region is expecting heavy rainfall and is under flash flood watch until Sunday evening, per the National Weather Service. (2-4 inches of rain expected) (Axios.com)
  • Governor’s website for updates to infrastructure: http://status.pr
  • President Trump and First Lady Melania to visit Puerto Rico Tuesday.
  • President Trump: “All American hearts are united with the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have faced terrible devastation in the wake of two catastrophic hurricanes. I know it’s been devastating. We’re sending people to help.”
  • “We are with you. We will stay with you and we will come back stronger than ever.”
  • Army Corps of Engineers Mission: Restoring power grid, rebuilding island’s infrastructure
  • Central interior of island reviewed (9/28)
  • Thousands of Puerto Ricans are expected to leave their homes on the island to come to the United States. 350,000 P.R. students to start school in Florida. (Miami Herald, Gov. Rick Scott)

Rescue and Recovery

Emergency Response:

Army Corps of Engineers Mission:  “to provide Puerto Rico with temporary power, temporary roofing, technical assistance for debris removal, and infrastructure assessment,” said Mobile District Commander, COL James DeLapp, who is the officer in charge of the Corps assets deployed in Puerto Rico.”

“One of the first missions the Recovery Field Office and other Corps assets have already taken on is assessing the damage to the Guajataca Dam, designed to reduce the impacts of flooding in and around Ponce, Puerto Rico. The Corps is also working to provide emergency power to critical sites, such as hospitals.”

Humanitarian Response

  • Over 10,000 federal officials are on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands working hand-in-hand with local families and officials and communities to provide assistance and comfort to those in need. (VP Pence; DHS advisor Bossert)
  • Military assets moving into place to oversee the rebuilding of the island’s infrastructure, already fragile before two major hurricanes slammed into the island.
  • More national guard heading (1,400) in P.R. to assist in generators already on site
  • 95-97 percent of Island still w/o electricity (news reports)
  • Gov. Rick Scott, back from a tour of the P.R. situation: “Let’s focus on important things: let’s make sure everybody’s safe; let’s make sure we work on getting power restored.”
  • US Military sent large generator to help capacity in San Juan Airport
  • Most generators on island in use to support hospitals
  • Hospital ship Comfort expected to arrive Monday or Tuesday
  • Half of territory without drinking water
  • Eight airports now open. one airport closed as of Friday.
  • Nvoad.gov – volunteering information
  • more than 4.5 million meals, 4.6 million liters of water delivered and many millions more are on the way (T.Bossert DHS 9/28).
  • VP Mike Pence in an interview Saturday with WKMG, “the Department of Defense [has] 16 different Navy ships in the region, the USS Comfort will be there in a matter of days. I was able to inform Governor Rosselló the USS Wasp will be arriving with 16 helicopters tomorrow. We have literally 10,000 federal officials on the ground, 4,500 National Guard have been there from early on, more are on the way.” (Article and video WKMG Orlando: http://bit.ly/2x3noGh)
  • Fuel and supplies continued to stack up in ports as President Trump waived the Jones Act proactively Thursday to ensure more supplies are not held up by maritime restrictions.
  • But the same issues remained: “There are plenty of ships and plenty of cargo to come into the island,” said Mark Miller, a spokesman for shipping company Crowley, which has 3,000 containers of supplies in the US territory. “From there, that’s where the supply chain breaks down — getting the goods from the port to the people on the island who need them,” he told Bloomberg News.”
  • 12 Coast Guard Cutters; 3 U.S. Navy Ships; 1 DoT Maritime ship; six commercial ships with supplies (T. Bossert briefing 9/28)
  • Seven additional ships on the way to house responders. As of Thursday, 9/28, FEMA and supporting agencies had delivered 1.3 million meals, 2.7 million liters of water (T.Bossert)
  • FEMA – 14 staging areas set up across the island territory for launching assistance programs. (TownHallNews 9/30)

Humanitarian crisis leads to migration:

(Miami Herald) “Following the disaster caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — which triggered floods and mudslides and left the island of 3.5 million people without electricity or potable water — thousands of Puerto Ricans are expected to leave their homes on the island to come to the United States. That exodus will have a significant impact in Florida, one of the main destinations of Puerto Rican migration, which has increased every year over the past decade because of the economic recession on the island.

Between Sept. 21 and 28, a total of 18 flights loaded with passengers from San Juan arrived at Miami International Airport, with 2,700 people on board (including tourists), according to figures from the airport communications department.

“State and local authorities are also preparing for the potential wave of migration.

“Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently announced that the Sunshine State will assist the displaced. Scott asked public universities to allow Puerto Rican students to pay tuition at Florida residents’ prices.

“The Miami-Dade school system also expects to receive some of the 350,000 Puerto Rican students whose schools have not yet been able to open and it is not known when classes will resume.” (Full story in Miami Herald is here)

Response to Puerto Rico’s devastation, and political debate:

Politico: “Republicans fretted” over President Trump’s characteristically direct and blunt tweet in response to the San Juan mayor, a liberal anti-Trump voice, who accused the federal government of not doing enough to help.

Amid great suffering of the Puerto Rico residents as they struggle to regain the necessities of life and start their journey back to normalcy, speaking truth about Puerto Rico’s stewardship of its finances and infrastructure prior to the hurricane becomes more difficult, as though piling on more cruelty to what they have suffered already.

But an honest account of the situation is this: The island’s history of corruption and neglect of infrastructure have exacerbated the situation, in addition to the island locale that is difficult to get supplies through. Many P.R. residents are aware of this, which likely deepens their frustration and despair, leading to a lashing out at the very forces moving in to help.

Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes, a Puerto Rico native who lives in Central Florida, tells Politico….that “Puerto Rico deserves its share of the blame, thanks to the commonwealth’s endemic corruption and mismanagement. ‘It took a storm of this magnitude to show how under-prepared they were,'” Cortes said.

In an op-ed in the New York Post, Jorge Rodriguez, 49, the CEO of PACIV, an international engineering firm based in Puerto Rico, takes note that the island’s government was ill-prepared for the magnitude of the crisis:

“The governor Ricardo Rossello has little experience. He’s 36 and never really held a job and never dealt with a budget.

“For instance, shortly after the hurricane hit, the government imposed a curfew from 6 pm to 6 am and then changed it. Now, it’s 7 pm to 5 am, and makes no sense. The curfew has prevented fuel trucks from transporting their loads. These trucks should have been allowed to run for 24 hours to address our needs, but they have been stalled, and so we have massive lines at gas stations and severe shortages of diesel at our hospitals and supermarkets.”

The response to Puerto Rico’s destruction comes as rebuilding in hurricane-ravaged Southeast Texas and Florida has tested the resources of the United States government. And yet, it has marshalled a major response to assist in what is essentially a total rebuild of the island territory’s infrastructure. But no matter how massive, the facts on the ground are that with so much infrastructure covered in debris, washed out and toppled, this recovery will be slower than what we saw in Texas and Florida.

The New York Times sent in a team of reporters to collect anecdotes that throw the suffering into high relief:

“Puerto Rico has not been forgotten, but more than a week after Hurricane Maria hit, it’s a woozy empire of wreckage; of waiting in line for food, water and gas and then finding another line to wait in some more.

“Ever since Hurricane Maria flooded the first floor of his house in Ocean Park, [Joey] Ramos has been boxed in the second floor of his home, hunkered down with his wife and his four pitbull-mastiff mix dogs, which guard his house.

“The waters stink of excrement. He’s seen fish swim by his stoop. To exit his home he often paddles an abandoned refrigerator like a gondola.” (full story: http://nyti.ms/2fZv1mp)

“In front of the pink and green, art deco facade of the Telégrafo building in Santurce, dozens of people checked their phones. The section of the street is one of the few spots on the island where residents can connect to free Wi-Fi.

“People try to reach family members abroad or those left isolated in island towns. Many check their emails for any word from their employer. It’s common to see people break down after making contact with a loved one for the first time since the hurricane.” (A Day in the Life of Puerto Rico)

The President and First Lady’s visit on Tuesday would be a much-needed presence and comfort to the island’s residents amid the massive response the U.S. government is undertaking to the scale of devastation, which is heartbreaking to comprehend as the destruction becomes more clear each day.

Puerto Ricans are now facing the same kind of loss – and grief over their losses – that has hit greater Houston, parts of Louisiana and Florida.

But once again, we are reminded that, at a time of infrastructure devastation across southeast Texas, parts of Florida and now, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, not only do we have a former construction executive and builder as President, he is a New Yorker who knows how to build against many obstacles and difficulties.

New Yorkers know how to build.

Puerto Rico will have to endure months and years of rebuilding. But as they soldier through, they will also have a shared experience of rebuilding as other parts of the U.S.  still reeling from major hurricane damage.

Americans all in spirit, working through their tasks together and soldiering on.

(Updated to clarify hurricanes’ magnitude that struck Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.)