Hurricane Maria Hits Puerto Rico At Time When The Island Is Already Struggling

Sep 20, 2017
Originally published on September 20, 2017 6:27 pm
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Puerto Rico has been battered by Hurricane Maria all day. The hurricane's 140 mph winds have torn off roofs and blown out windows in hospitals and government buildings. Twenty inches of rain have been recorded in some areas, causing rivers to overflow and flooding neighborhoods across the island. NPR's Greg Allen reports that Hurricane Maria presents a new challenge for Puerto Rico at a time when it is already in deep financial trouble.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan, Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz says it's hard for her to process the neighborhoods that have been flooded and the number of homes destroyed by Hurricane Maria. But at a news conference today, she said Puerto Ricans are resilient.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

CARMEN YULIN CRUZ: (Through interpreter) Maria will not defeat us. And as soon as our crews can safely hit the streets, we'll start to rebuild, I guarantee you. We are a country filled with energy and hope. The loss will not stop us.

ALLEN: The last hurricane to cross the entire island, Georges in 1998, cost some $2 billion in damages. Maria is likely to far exceed that. And it comes as the U.S. territory is struggling to manage a crippling debt brought on by years of economic recession. Edwin Melendez, the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, says the hurricane hits hard two sectors of Puerto Rico's economy that were beginning to show signs of growth, agriculture and tourism.

EDWIN MELENDEZ: We the upcoming winter, we need to see what damage was caused to the infrastructure, how bad the hotels were hit and what kind of an occupancy they're going to experience - and then what kind of damage is being done to the crops.

ALLEN: Even before Maria hit, Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, predicted that the Category 4 hurricane would lead to, quote, "a total collapse of the energy system." This afternoon, Puerto Rico's emergency management director said there are reports Maria knocked out critical high-voltage lines, leaving virtually the entire island without power. Former Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuno says fixing the island's aging electrical grid will be one of the government's toughest jobs.

LUIS FORTUNO: The power authority needs tremendous infusion of money, and those funds have not been available. So I believe that the main issue here will be no power for weeks in many parts of the island.

ALLEN: Puerto Rico's power authority is one of many public agencies unable to pay its bills. A financial oversight board appointed by the U.S. Congress is now in charge of all of the island's finances. The board is considering a proposal to privatize the island's power authority, essentially selling it to the highest bidder. John Mudd, an attorney in Puerto Rico who's been following the island's financial troubles, says this disaster gives that proposal a big push.

JOHN MUDD: It's going to be easier, politically, to do so because then you can tell the government - hey, guys, you don't have the money to do it. Forget about it.

ALLEN: Given its financial problems, Puerto Rico's recovery will depend heavily on help from FEMA and Congress. Governor Rossello has praised President Trump and FEMA director Brock Long for their quick response and pledges of support for the U.S. territory. Edwin Melendez of Hunter College says it will be weeks before the human toll and the cost of the storm become clear. But there may be a silver lining. He says rebuilding will create jobs on the island and a short-term economic boost.

MELENDEZ: This is not the kind of injection to the economy, the stimulus that you like to see. But it's the stimulus that we're going to have over the next few months.

ALLEN: Former Governor Fortuno saw something like that in 2011 when Hurricane Irene, a Category 1 storm, hit the island. The recovery process sparked a small economic rebound at a time when it was badly needed.

Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.