Puerto Rico's rocky road to recovery

Battered by two hurricanes, US territory also faces crippling debt to complicate matters

Residents of Toa Baja, where two victims drowned due to hurricane Maria, gather their strength as they start to clean up and rebuild on Sunday (Sept 24).
Hurricane Maria smashed buildings, uprooted mobile phone towers and left Puerto Rico reeling this week. Much of the island's water is undrinkable and aid delivery is proving expensive.
Hurricane Maria smashed buildings, uprooted mobile phone towers and left Puerto Rico reeling this week. Much of the island's water is undrinkable and aid delivery is proving expensive.PHOTO: REUTERS

PUERTO RICO • The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico will be without power for up to six months.

A day after Hurricane Maria hit on Wednesday, its ferocious winds smashing buildings, mobile phone towers and the electrical grid, fear and frustration were pervasive.

Power was out everywhere. Mobile phones were mostly useless, forcing residents to scramble for news from relatives. Much of the water was undrinkable. Roads were carpeted in debris. And still, the full scope of the damage was unknown.

By day's end, Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rossello said there had been no contact with officials in 85 per cent of the island. Late on Thursday, Mr Bernardo Betito Marquez, the Mayor of Toa Baja in northern Puerto Rico, told The New York Times that eight people had drowned there after flooding. That brought to at least 10 the number who have died as a result of Hurricane Maria, a toll that is expected to climb. The storm has also been blamed for 15 deaths in Dominica and two in Guadeloupe.

For Puerto Rico, a United States territory 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 just as the federal government is stretched to the limit grappling with the destruction left by hurricanes Harvey and Irma. And unlike Texas and Florida, politically powerful states on the mainland, Puerto Rico is an impoverished, Spanish-speaking commonwealth.

It is an island to boot, making aid delivery all the more expensive.

  • 6 Number of months Puerto Rico is expected to be without power.

    70% Of power in the US territory had been knocked out by Hurricane Irma earlier.

    95% Of wireless cell sites in Puerto Rico that have been lost.

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

Yesterday, an airport in San Juan began to receive three or four planeloads of generators, water, tents, cots and other crucial supplies, said Mr Alejandro de la Campa, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Emergency teams will start to fan out to begin helping residents with their immediate needs, he said.

Some 3,200 federal workers were in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to help, said Ms Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, Puerto Rico's non-voting member of Congress.

Re-establishing communications was a priority, Mr Rossello said. Puerto Rico has lost an estimated 95 per cent of its wireless cell sites.

Complicating its recovery is its devastated economy. It has been mired in a deep recession for more than a decade and carries US$74 billion (S$99.5 billion) in debt. Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy in May, the first time an American state or territory had done so.

Mr Ricardo Ramos, director of the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, told CNN the island's power infrastructure will take months to come back.

But with many businesses blown away, the post-storm landscape is expected to drive even more people into the arms of relatives and friends on the mainland. Representative Darren Soto, whose district includes Orlando, Florida, where many Puerto Ricans have landed, said: "We are preparing in central Florida for a huge influx from folks on the island seeking shelter."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'Puerto Rico's rocky road to recovery'. Subscribe