Puerto Rico faces mountain of obstacles in recovery after Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria thrashed parts of the Dominican Republic Thursday after making a direct hit on Puerto Rico that caused severe flooding and cut power to the entire island.
People walk accros a flooded street in Juana Matos, Puerto Rico.
People walk accros a flooded street in Juana Matos, Puerto Rico.PHOTO: AFP

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (NYTIMES) - A day after Hurricane Maria razed Puerto Rico, its ferocious winds smashing houses, hotels, cellphone towers and the island's entire electrical grid, the fear and frustration were pervasive on Thursday (Sept 21).

Power was out everywhere. Cellphones were mostly useless. Much of the island's water was undrinkable. Roads were carpeted in debris. And still the full scope of the damage was unknown. By day's end, Governor Ricardo Rosselló said there had been no contact with officials in 85 per cent of the island.

For Puerto Rico, long crippled by enormous debt and an essentially bankrupt financial system, the road to recovery just went from long to seemingly endless. Still reeling from Hurricane Irma, which knocked out 70 per cent of the power when it grazed the island two weeks ago, it faces a mountain of need in the coming months just as the federal government is stretched to the limit grappling with the destruction left by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

On Thursday, the island was declared a federal disaster zone, freeing up federal emergency money.

The first major steps toward recovery will get underway on Friday morning when an airport tarmac in San Juan, cleared of debris, will open to begin receiving three or four daily emergency plane-loads of much-needed generators, water, tents, cots and other crucial supplies, said Alejandro de la Campa, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Puerto Rico.

Emergency teams will also start to fan out across the island to begin helping residents with their immediate needs, he added.

Re-establishing communications was a priority, the governor said, although the task would be gargantuan. The Federal Communications Commission estimated on Thursday that Puerto Rico had lost 95 per cent of its wireless cell sites.

"In the next 24 to 48 hours, the scene will become clearer," Rosselló said.

Complicating Puerto Rico's recovery is the island's devastated economy. The island has been mired in a deep recession for more than a decade and carries US$74 billion (S$100 billion) in debt.

With no way of repaying it, Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy in May, the first time in history that an American state or territory had taken the extraordinary measure. The island's finances are also being overseen by a federal control board.

The hope now is that, as a result of disaster aid, Puerto Rico can modernise its electrical grid, roads and bridges. It is a goal the federal government shares.