A day after President Donald Trump gave his administration’s Puerto Rico response a “10 out of 10” during a White House meeting with the island’s Gov. Riccardo Rossello, a handful of media outlets are reporting that, one month after Maria first made landfall in southeastern Puerto Rico, many villages still don’t have access to electricity, clean water or - in more than a few cases - the outside world.
During his White House visit, Rossello revealed that about 20 percent of the island has service and he has pledged to get that to 95 percent by Dec. 31. For now, though, most of the island's 3.4 million people are suffering through the sweltering temperatures without air conditioning or basic necessities. Many have resorted to using washboards, now frequently seen for sale along the side of the road, to clean clothes, and sleeping on their balconies and flocking to any open restaurants for relief from daytime temperatures above 90 degrees.
The process of restoring cell phone service has progressed even more slowly. According to figures released by the FCC on Friday, only about 30% of the country’s cell sites have been restored to service. However, the commission is optimistic that the emergency license it granted to Google’s Project Loon could allow the tech giant to restore power even more quickly.
Maria, which left nearly 50 people dead after hammering the island with nearly 160 mph winds and torrential rains that caused at least one dam to fail and triggered flash flooding in the capital city of San Juan, and elsewhere.
As the Associated Press pointed out, the storm's path was ideal for taking down the entire grid. Most of Puerto Rico's power generating capacity is along the southern coast and most consumption is in the north around San Juan, with steel and aluminum transmission towers up to 90 feet (27 meters) tall running through the mountains in the middle. At least 10 towers fell along the most important transmission line that runs to the capital, entangling it with a secondary one that runs parallel and that lost about two dozen towers in a hard-to-reach area in the center of the island.
And given Puerto Rico’s insolvency, the storm couldn’t have hit at a worse time. Prepa, the island’s beleaguered power authority, filed for bankruptcy in July, forcing it to forgo needed maintenance, and, of course, had already been weakened by Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier.
Meanwhile, a shortage of workers has slowed the process of rebuilding and distributing emergency supplies.
Prepa Director Ricardo Ramos told the AP the authority is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and contractors to bring in more "bucket trucks" and other equipment. It already has about 400 three- to five-member repair crews and is trying to reach 1,000 within three weeks with workers brought in from the US "With this number of brigades we will be able to advance much more rapidly," Ramos assured reporters during a recent news conference.
Prepa reportedly brought in a Montana company, Whitefish Energy Holdings, to help its crews restore the transmission and distribution lines across the island. It has a rolling contract and can bill up to $300 million for its work, said Odalys de Jesus, a spokeswoman for the power authority.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg ventured to some of the island’s most isolated villages to chronicle how people have coped without many basic essentials in the month since the storm hit.
One elderly woman spoke about how the storm has left her cut off from her neighbors and family, in a ruined home without electricity or running water. To pass the time, she sings Ava Marias to herself.
A month after Hurricane Maria battered this mountainous stretch of central Puerto Rico, recovery remained elusive along Highway 152, where 82-year-old Carmen Diaz Lopez lives alone in a home that’s one landslide away from plummeting into the muddy creek below.
Without electricity, and without family members to care for her, she’s become dependent on the companionship of a few neighbors who stop by periodically. But a collapsed bridge has made it challenging to even communicate with her friend across the creek, so she’s lived for the most part in solitude, passing the electricity-less days singing “Ave Maria” and classic Los Panchos songs to herself, lighting candles each night so she can find the bathroom.
“I just ask the Lord to take care of me, because he’s the only one I have,” Diaz Lopez said Wednesday.
Diaz Lopez and her neighbors along Kilometer 5 of this badly hit mountain road in Barranquitas municipality are among the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans still at risk as the recovery effort heads into its fifth week. Pipe water returned here in a trickle a few days ago, and the collapsed earth that blocked the road and sent muck into homes has been half-way cleared. But a phone signal is still non-existent, and residents are far from any semblance of sustainable self-sufficiency.
One disaster-response coordinator said she’s never seen a situation where people have gone this long without basic services.
“I just haven’t seen a situation where people don’t have access to basic services for so long,” said Martha Thompson, the Puerto Rico response coordinator for the Boston-based charity Oxfam Americas who also worked on the response to Hurricane Katrina.
According to Bloomberg, provisional measures appear to be preventing a much greater humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. A government task force has restored electricity to many hospitals and healthcare facilities, but others are sustained by diesel generators that occasionally fail. (APR Energy Chairman John Campion, whose company rents the units for natural disasters, said in an interview that such generators typically have a life span of 500 hours, and the crisis has already lasted longer than that.)
Earlier this week, WSJ reported that a Navy hospital ship sent to Puerto Rico has treated barely 150 patients. The reason? Many doctors and hospital administrators don’t know it’s there.
The USNS Comfort, a 70,000-metric-ton ship staffed with roughly 800 medical and support personnel and 250 beds, has treated only about 150 people since it arrived on Oct. 3, said a U.S. Navy spokesman aboard the vessel. It costs about $180,000 daily to operate the ship, according to the Navy. The USNS Comfort, a 70,000-metric-ton ship staffed with roughly 800 medical and support personnel and 250 beds, has treated only about 150 people since it arrived on Oct. 3, said a U.S. Navy spokesman aboard the vessel. It costs about $180,000 daily to operate the ship, according to the Navy.
Government officials say Puerto Rican hospitals are aware the Comfort is ready to take in critical patients. But if Dr. Felix Valle-Avilés is an example, few know about it. Dr. Valle-Avilés, who works at a community health center and a walk-in clinic in Arecibo on the island’s northwest, said he hadn’t received information about the ship or how it can be used.
And as Bloomberg points out, the storm will probably further weaken the island’s already fragile tax base by forcing hundreds of thousands of former residents to resettle - perhaps permanently - in the Continental US. Indeed, cities like Orlando and New York City that had large extant Puerto Rican populations have seen an influx of visitors, and are bracing for tens of thousands more.
One byproduct of this migration could potentially come back to haunt Trump and Republicans in general during the mid-terms and - further out - during the 2020 race.
Puerto Ricans who permanently settle in Florida, where many have family members and about 100,000 are expected to stay, could tilt the vote in the quintessential swing state in favor of Democrats, Bloomberg noted.
With this in mind, it’s clear just how politically damaging the criticism of the administration’s disaster recovery efforts could be. Trump sparring with the Mayor of San Juan and other local officials, coupled with his insistence on complaining about Puerto Rico’s troubled finances, could create a huge political liability if tens of thousands of Democrat-leaning Puerto Ricans permanently settle in Orlando.