Puerto Rico Faces a Looming Humanitarian Disaster

The 3.4 million U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico face a serious humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which dealt a blow square down the length of the island.

Many mainlanders forget that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory — the island was initially colonized by the Spanish and ceded to the United States during the Mexican-American War. Notably, Puerto Rico doesn’t have representation in Congress, and residents cannot cast votes in presidential elections.

When a series of hurricanes swept through the Caribbean, Puerto Rico was already at a profound disadvantage thanks to a debt crisis worth billions.

Officials have been struggling to renegotiate the debt over the past year, but they face an uphill battle with federal regulators and bondholders eager to recoup their losses. Puerto Rico has nearly $18 billion in general obligation bonds, and additional debt tied in its electric company, pensions and more.

Last year, President Barack Obama signed a bill to help Puerto Rico manage its debt, in exchange for considerable oversight.

Hurricane Irma caused considerable damage across Puerto Rico, but the problem was exacerbated by Hurricane Maria, which churned along the length of the territory with tremendous wind and rain. In the immediate aftermath, residents experienced extensive damages to homes, businesses, roads and other infrastructure. It could take as much as $30 billion for repairs.

Even an economically healthy community would struggle to deal with this amount of destruction, but Puerto Rico is facing a very different story.

Puerto Rico’s electric woes have hit the news on the mainland, with estimates that it may take as long as six months to restore power in the territory. While power plants are operational, the grid used for electricity distribution is effectively destroyed.

And not having power isn’t just an inconvenience — it’s the start of a huge humanitarian problem. Hospitals can’t operate, and cooling and ventilation systems to cope with tropical heat are down. Meanwhile, people who need technology to survive, such as those using ventilators, are worried about what happens when they run out of fuel to power generators.

Relief flights are also struggling to get enough food to residents, but the even bigger problem is water. With damage to water infrastructure, residents can’t get enough safe drinking water, and that can lead to emerging disease. Cholera, for example, often thrives in the aftermath of disasters because communities can’t keep their water clean. The damage has also interrupted access to medical care, making it hard to identify and stop disease outbreaks.

Phone coverage is also very limited in Puerto Rico, as the storm damaged most cell towers, forcing people to drive in search of enough signal to call out. While some can reach the mainland, the island itself is filled with dead zones. And that makes it hard to contact friends and relatives and respond to calls for help. The telecommunications disruption could likely also require a lengthy recovery process.

This kind of damage requires a huge infusion of cash, but the international development groups that help with recovery in impoverished nations aren’t equipped to handle the situation in Puerto Rico. As part of the United States, it’s considered a developed nation. The U.S. government is on the hook for the cost of recovery, just as it is in Texas and Florida — or any other region devastated by a storm and declared a disaster area.

Poor conditions in Puerto Rico will be particularly harsh for low-income residents, and the destruction could create pressure to relocate to the mainland in search of better jobs and opportunities.

It’s up to Congress to decide to allocate sufficient funds to help Puerto Rico recover and meet its obligation to United States citizens — no matter where they live.

Photo credit: vxla

73 comments

Jack Y
Jack Y10 months ago

thanks

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Jack Y
Jack Y10 months ago

thanks

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John J
John J10 months ago

thanks for sharing

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John J
John J10 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Marie W
Marie W11 months ago

Thank you for posting.

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Paulo R
Paulo Rabout a year ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo Rabout a year ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo Rabout a year ago

ty

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hillabout a year ago

Puerto Rico was already is dire straights before the hurricane. Their crumbling infrastructure was is very bad shape. You have to blame the Puerto Ricoan government for not doing it's job to keep their territory running for their constituents. Even since the storm, the mayor of San Juan has not done her job, only complaining the the county is not doing enough when FEMA was there almost immediately, as were all the charities.

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Veronica D
Veronica Danieabout a year ago

Thank you so very much.

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