Weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas and Hurricane Irma wrecked southern Florida, another hurricane, Maria, ravaged Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm. Since its passing, this small American island has been forced to show resilience as infrastructure and communication challenges continue to pervert efforts. However, the strength of the people of Puerto Rico and efforts by the Trump Administration have made a difference, despite some of the media’s depiction, Puerto Rico with a population of 3.4 million is preparing for a recovery.
While currently, the storms death toll rests at 16, officials have been quick to remind the federal government that the local government is unaware of the true scope of the damage to lives. Out of nearly 70 hospitals on the island, less than 20 are even partially operational; meanwhile, a lack of electricity on the entire island has made cell phones obsolete. This has caused many hospitals to wait to announce lives lost until families can be contacted and records can be kept once again.
While this has caused many to argue that Puerto Rico is not receiving adequate assistance from the federal government, extensive relief efforts are already underway.
This week, President Trump temporarily lifted the Jones Act, a law which required goods shipped between points in the US to be carried by vessels built, owned, and (mostly) operated by Americans. The New York Time’s Niraj Chokshi explains, in 1920 during the law’s passage, this law expedited the creation of a national maritime industry and protected American control over water commerce; but for Puerto Rico during a natural disaster, it slowed the ability for resources to enter the island while ports in Florida and nearby countries were seeking American made ships and crews. President Trump’s temporary waiver of this law has allowed millions of emergency meals, medical supplies, and clean water to enter the territory, drastically improving recovery efforts.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been working closely with the Department of Defense (DoD) to both allow resources to enter the island and get these resources distributed to areas of rural Puerto Rico, unreachable by traditional police units.
Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) have called upon the Trump Administration to increase the military presence on the island to ensure logistical constraints, which have been preventing aid from reaching remote parts of the island, are overcome and aid is delivered.
The Administration has responded to the situation on the ground accordingly with an uptick in DoD assistance. The Department reported on Friday morning, “In Puerto Rico, DoD continues ongoing relief operations and deployment of additional response capacity, expanding airfield and seaport throughput and supporting Federal Emergency Management Agency requirements. The hospital ship USNS Comfort will depart its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, today, bound for Puerto Rico, and NorthCom is sourcing a Role 3 medical capability and additional medical support… The capability includes a self-sufficient deployable medical/surgical treatment facility, including inpatient care with 50 inpatient beds for up to 10 days.”
In addition, “Ten of 12 regional staging areas, including 12 Puerto Rico National Guard armories, are open, he said, supporting more than 100 distribution points for meals, water and other commodities. Eight airports are open in Puerto Rico and one remains closed, he said. Five of six FEMA-priority sea ports are open or open with restrictions, he added, and surveys of Ponce and Roosevelt Roads are ongoing. U.S. Transportation Command lifted a replacement generator for San Juan Combined Center/Radar Approach. When installed, the generator will enhance air traffic control capability and increase air traffic capacity.”
Puerto Rico’s greatest struggle, which continues to cause the death toll to rise and citizens to distress, is the lack of basic energy on the island.
The territory’s electric grid has been destroyed by the twin blows of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico officials say it will likely be four to six months before power is fully restored. Unfortunately, this was an expected problem.
The LA Times reports, “The island’s faltering electrical grid…already was struggling to keep the lights on after a history of poor maintenance, poorly trained staff, allegations of corruption and crushing debt. As recently as 2016, the island suffered a three-day, island-wide blackout as a result of a fire. A private energy consultant noted then that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority ‘appears to be running on fumes, and … desperately requires an infusion of capital — monetary, human and intellectual — to restore a functional utility.’ Puerto Ricans in early 2016 were suffering power outages at rates four to five times higher than average U.S. customers.”
This should serve as a much-needed warning to the rest of the United States. Our own national electric grid relies on archaic infrastructure and has moved away from resilient energy sources such as coal and nuclear energy. Luckily, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is working to open coal and nuclear power plants to build resilience in the U.S. electric grid, hopefully, to prevent this type of tragedy from occurring nationwide.
Puerto Rico’s energy grid was unprepared for the storm; now leaving the island without the ability to pump clean water, without cellular phone towers, without electricity in most hospitals, and in this sub-tropical climate — without air conditioning.
While the situation in Puerto Rico has clearly become catastrophic, it has not gone unaddressed. Federal efforts including military continue to work to bring essential resources to individuals across Puerto Rico. This situation reminds all Americans the importance of disaster preparedness, a message the Trump Administration has not taken lightly.