Trump’s paper towels aren’t helping Puerto Rico

In an editorial, the New York Times says: Two months after Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, a sense of desperation seems to be yielding to resignation at best. More than half of the island is still without power, and hundreds of thousands of residents are fleeing to the American mainland in an extraordinary exodus.

It has been weeks since President Trump visited to jovially toss rolls of paper towels to needy fellow Americans and brag about how successful the recovery effort was. But true evidence of progress has been hard to come by. Even the simplest symbols of government, like traffic lights, remain useless. Most of the Pentagon’s emergency troops have begun pulling out, except for those working on the island’s shattered power grid.

The storm’s official death count of about 55 may eventually be hundreds higher, according to forensic researchers measuring the cumulative effect on the island’s 3.4 million residents. Tens of thousands of jobs have been washed away. Thousands of small businesses remain closed, and even some hospitals remain on emergency generators. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials say that unusually tough conditions are forcing them to continue to focus on the emergency response phase across the battered island — potable water, roof tarps and other bare necessities. [Continue reading…]

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Puerto Rico is set to become the world’s worst economy next year

Quartz reports: The true extent of Hurricane Maria’s damage to Puerto Rico is still being tallied. But here’s a good indication of how bad it will be—the island’s economy will shrink by about 8% in 2018, according to a November forecast by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

That puts Puerto Rico at the top of the list of the slowest-growing economies in the world.


Puerto Rico might have made it on that list even if hadn’t been hit by the Category 4 storm on Sept. 20, but it likely wouldn’t have been at the top. Last year, the island’s economy contracted by closer to 1%, according to government estimates. [Continue reading…]

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Puerto Rico’s utility cancels controversial contract with Montana firm to repair electric grid

The Washington Post reports: The Puerto Rico electric power company said Sunday that it is canceling a controversial $300 million contract it had signed with a small Montana-based company and tasked with a central role in repairing the territory’s hurricane-ravaged electric grid.

The move came after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said the contract was a distraction and should be canceled after critics in the electric power industry, Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency raised questions about whether the company, Whitefish Energy, was well equipped to respond to the hurricane damage.

Thirty-nine days after Hurricane Maria hit the territory — and only two days before a hearing of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee — Rosselló said that he would request assistance from Florida and New York under mutual aid arrangements that utilities traditionally activate to help other states during an emergency. About 80 percent of the people living on the commonwealth’s main island still have no electricity. [Continue reading…]

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Whitefish Energy contract bars government from auditing deal

The Hill reports: A deal reached between the government and a small Montana energy company located in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown prohibits the government from reviewing labor costs or profits related to the company’s relief efforts in Puerto Rico, according to a leaked copy of the contract.

A copy of the deal highlighted by reporter Ken Klippenstein reveals that the government isn’t allowed to “audit or review the cost and profit elements” under the agreement, allowing the company greater discretion and secrecy for how it spends the $300 million to restore power to the island. Puerto Rico is rebuilding after two major hurricanes wiped out most of the island’s electrical grid.


[Continue reading…]

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Puerto Rico is burning its dead, and we may never know how many people the hurricane really killed

BuzzFeed reports: Funeral directors and crematoriums are being permitted by the Puerto Rican government to burn the bodies of people who died as a result of Hurricane Maria — without those people being counted in the official death toll.

The result is a massive loophole likely suppressing the official death count, which has become a major indicator of how the federal government’s relief efforts are going because President Trump himself made it one.

During Trump’s photo-op visit to the US territory — whose residents are US citizens — three weeks ago, he boasted that the death toll was just 16. It doubled by the time he returned to Washington that same day. The death toll is now at 51, a figure widely contradicted by what funeral homes, crematoriums, and hospitals on the ground tell BuzzFeed News.

Then, last week, when asked how he would rate the White House’s response to the crisis, Trump said, “I’d say it was a 10.” More than a month after the storm made landfall on Sept. 20, 2.6 million people are without power, at least 875,000 people don’t have access to running water, and 66% of the island still doesn’t have cell service. [Continue reading…]

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FEMA cites ‘significant concerns’ over Whitefish Energy deal in Puerto Rico

The Washington Post reports: The federal emergency agency raised more questions Friday over a $300 million contract given to a small Montana energy firm to help repair Puerto Rico’s hurricane-battered electrical grid, noting “significant concerns” on how the deal was awarded.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a statement that it is looking into whether the contract between Whitefish Energy and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, “followed applicable regulations to ensure that federal money is properly spent.”

After an initial review, FEMA “has significant concerns over how PREPA procured this contract and has not confirmed whether the contract prices are reasonable,” according to the statement. [Continue reading…]

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Nurses returning from Puerto Rico accuse the federal government of leaving people to die

Vox reports: The nation’s largest nurses union condemned the federal government’s emergency response in Puerto Rico on Thursday for “delaying necessary humanitarian aide to its own citizens and leaving them to die.”

The stinging criticism came from members of the nonprofit National Nurses United, speaking on Capitol Hill with Democratic members of Congress after a two-week humanitarian mission to Puerto Rico. About 50 volunteer nurses visited two dozen towns in urban and rural areas, and described the desperation of Puerto Ricans — even five weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island — as worse than anything they had witnessed on other humanitarian missions, including the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans and the earthquake in Haiti.

The official death toll from the storm so far is 51, though Vox’s own reporting suggests the actual number of deaths could be in the hundreds.

The nurses described doctors performing surgery in hospitals with light from their cellphones, children screaming from hunger, elderly residents suffering from severe dehydration, and black mold spreading throughout entire communities. [Continue reading…]

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Corruption: $300M Puerto Rico recovery contract awarded to tiny utility company linked to major Trump donor

The Daily Beast reports: Puerto Rico has agreed to pay a reported $300 million for the restoration of its power grid to a tiny utility company that is primarily financed by a private-equity firm founded and run by a man who contributed large sums of money to President Trump, an investigation conducted by The Daily Beast has found.

Whitefish Energy Holdings, which had a reported staff of only two full-time employees when Hurricane Maria touched down, appears ill-equipped to handle the daunting task of restoring electricity to Puerto Rico’s more than 3 million residents.
Much larger utilities are more commonly used following natural disasters on the scale of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island last month.

The private-equity firm that finances Whitefish, HBC Investments, was founded by Joe Colonnetta, who serves as its general partner.

Federal Elections Commission data compiled by The Daily Beast shows Colonnetta contributed $20,000 to the Trump Victory PAC during the general election, $2,700 to Trump’s primary election campaign (then the maximum amount permitted), $2,700 to Trump’s general election campaign (also the maximum), and a total of $30,700 to the Republican National Committee in 2016 alone.

Colonnetta’s wife, Kimberly, is no stranger to Republican politics either; shortly after Trump’s victory, she gave $33,400 to the Republican National Committee, the maximum contribution permitted for party committees in 2016.

Joe Colonnetta is not the only Republican connection to the controversial Whitefish contract. On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Whitefish Chief Executive Officer Andy Techmanski is friends with Trump administration Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Moreover, Whitefish is located in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Monatana. [Continue reading…]

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Puerto Rico’s environmental catastrophe

Vann R Newkirk II reports: “There’s no way there were just 45 deaths,” said Myrna Conty, an environmental activist whose work takes her regularly across the most remote parts of the island. She scoffed at the radio reports of the official death toll, a common refrain among Puerto Ricans whose personal stories—a cousin who died needing dialysis here, a neighbor who simply hasn’t been heard from there—when multiplied 3.5 million-fold make the official estimate seem impossible.

We’d followed the path that Hurricane Maria’s eye had taken along the highway to the west of San Juan. Three weeks after the storm, the tropical green was just starting to come back, sprouting over the brown wounds of mud and giant trees pulled up from their roots. Here in Arecibo, a small municipality about 40 minutes from San Juan on a good day, high-water marks from the flood stood out on building walls, seven or eight feet high. Obliterated houses marked the deserted hamlets along the road. Smokestacks had been snapped in half and wires lay slack where giant power pylons had fallen. The Río Grande de Arecibo that cuts through the municipality remained an swollen brown expanse, still threatening to drown bridges and homes. Arecibo was a ghost town.

But Conty’s dismay was also about the destruction that couldn’t be seen. For Conty, an old-guard environmental warrior in the countryside, Arecibo had been one of the key battlegrounds in her groups’ fights to contain poisons that affect much of Puerto Rico. But all of the signs around us showed that the battle had been—at least for now—lost. Across the island, residents already beset by water and food shortages are also facing real threats of contamination that have already spread illness and worse. “All of this is just the beginning,” Conty said. “This is catastrophic.”

Maria blew through the island in a matter of hours, but what was left behind wasn’t just traditional hurricane damage. The storm uncovered and intensified long-term environmental challenges that have long blighted Puerto Rico and now threaten its future. And securing a viable future for the island will mean more than just rebuilding what was lost from the wind and rain—it will require addressing those challenges in sustainable ways. [Continue reading…]

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Federal disaster aid for Puerto Rico isn’t foreign aid — but Trump acts that way

Jessica Trisko Darden writes: Puerto Rico was back in the news Thursday — this time because of a series of tweets from President Trump that “Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend….” and the warning that federal relief was not open-ended.

Disaster assistance, like humanitarian assistance and other forms of foreign aid, is political. In the modern era, media coverage often drives the government’s response to natural disasters.

And many Americans don’t support providing this type of emergency assistance to non-Americans. Surveys show again and again that many Americans believe the U.S. government spends too many taxpayer dollars helping foreigners, when it should be doing more at home. Even the most altruistic forms of foreign aid come under pressure: 45 percent of Americans support cutting humanitarian assistance.

Trump’s recent tweets on Puerto Rico echo much of the criticism often leveled against foreign disaster and humanitarian assistance. Despite the fact that Puerto Rico is not a foreign country (though many Americans think it is), the president seems insistent on treating it like one.

However, many of these criticisms are often based on a few common misperceptions about emergency assistance: [Continue reading…]

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Trump threatens to abandon Puerto Rico recovery effort

The Washington Post reports: President Trump served notice Thursday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Declaring the U.S. territory’s electrical grid and infrastructure to have been a “disaster before hurricanes,” Trump wrote Thursday that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate to the island for its recovery efforts and that relief workers will not stay “forever.”

Three weeks after Maria made landfall, much of Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million people, remains without power. Residents struggle to find clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine, and commerce is slow, with many businesses closed.

Trump on Thursday sought to shame the territory for its own plight. He tweeted, “Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.” And he quoted Sharyl Attkisson, a television journalist, as saying, “Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.” [Continue reading…]

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Three weeks since Hurricane Maria, much of Puerto Rico still dark, thirsty and frustrated

The Washington Post reports: Late each night, Rafael Surillo Ruiz, the mayor of a town with one of Puerto Rico’s most critical ports, drives for miles on darkened roads, easing around downed power lines and crumpled tree branches — to check his email.

At the wheel of his “guagua”— local slang for an SUV — he sometimes finds a spotty cellphone signal on a highway overpass, and there he sits, often for hours, scrolling through messages. During the day, with no working landline and no Internet access, he operates more like a 19th-century mayor of Yabucoa, orchestrating the city’s business in an information vacuum, dispatching notes scrawled on slips of paper — about problems such as balky generators and misdirected water deliveries — that he hands to runners.

On the other side of the mayor’s favorite overpass spot, one of the generators at the area’s biggest hospital has collapsed from exhaustion, and the frazzled staff have stopped admitting new patients. Deeper into the island’s mountainous interior, thirsty Puerto Ricans draw drinking water from the mud-caked crevices of roadside rock formations and bathe in creeks too small to have names.

“We feel completely abandoned here,” ­Surillo Ruiz said with a heavy sigh.

It has been three weeks since Hurricane Maria savaged Puerto Rico, and life in the capital city of San Juan inches toward something that remotely resembles a new, uncomfortable form of normalcy. Families once again loll on the shaded steps of the Mercado de Santurce traditional market on a Sunday afternoon, and a smattering of restaurants and stores open their doors along sidewalks still thick with debris and tangled power lines.

But much of the rest of the island lies in the chokehold of a turgid, frustrating and perilous slog toward recovery. [Continue reading…]

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Everything that’s been reported about deaths in Puerto Rico is at odds with the official count

Vox reports: Death tolls are the primary way we understand the impact of a disaster. And for nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, as a humanitarian crisis was intensifying, the death toll was frozen at 16.

“Sixteen people certified,” Trump said on October 3 during his visit to the island, repeating a figure confirmed by the territory’s governor. “Everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”

It was a moment that crystallized two conflicting narratives about the Puerto Rico disaster. The first one, from the federal government and Puerto Rico’s governor, is of a disaster that’s been managed well, with lives being saved and hospitals getting back up and running.

Lives surely have been saved in the response. But images and reports from the ground tell a story of people, cut off from basic supplies and health care, dying. They tell of hospitals running out of medication and fuel for their generators and struggling to keep up with the “avalanche of patients that came after the hurricane,” as one journalist put it.

The death toll from the hurricane is now up to 45, according to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. But 90 percent of the 3.4 million American citizens on the island still don’t have power, and 35 percent still don’t have water to drink or bathe in. And given how deadly power outages can be, 45 deaths seems low, according to disaster experts.

At Vox, we decided to compare what the government has been saying with other reports of deaths from the ground. We searched Google News for reports of deaths in English and Spanish media from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. We found reports of a total of 81 deaths linked directly or indirectly to the hurricane. Of those, 45 were the deaths certified by the government. The remaining 36 deaths were confirmed by local public officials or funeral directors, according to the reports. We also found another 450 reported deaths, most of causes still unknown, and reports of at least 69 people still missing. [Continue reading…]

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Puerto Rico: U.S. officials privately acknowledge serious food shortage

The Guardian reports: Federal officials privately admit there is a massive shortage of meals in Puerto Rico three weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) say that the government and its partners are only providing 200,000 meals a day to meet the needs of more than 2 million people. That is a daily shortfall of between 1.8m and 5.8m meals.

“We are 1.8 million meals short,” said one senior Fema official. “That is why we need the urgency. And it’s not going away. We’re doing this much today, but it has to be sustained over several months.”

The scale of the food crisis dwarfs the more widely publicized challenges of restoring power and communications. More than a third of Puerto Ricans are still struggling to live without drinking water. [Continue reading…]

The Intercept reports: House Republicans unveiled a $36.5 billion disaster relief supplemental package Tuesday night, intended to pay for relief and rebuilding efforts for the floods, hurricanes, and wildfires of the past several months. It includes money for Puerto Rico’s ongoing struggle with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, though only a fraction of that headline number. In fact, $5 billion of the funds earmarked for Puerto Rico comes in the form of a loan, increasing the amount of money the island will eventually need to pay back.

And in a cruel irony, the bill also contains $16 billion in debt relief — just not for Puerto Rico’s crushing debt. [Continue reading…]

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The Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico just expired and won’t be renewed

HuffPost reports: The Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico expired on Sunday night and “it is not being extended at this time,” Department of Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan told HuffPost on Monday.

DHS had temporarily waived the Jones Act ― an arguably outdated law that imposes exorbitant shipping costs on the U.S. island ― on Sept. 28. The waiver has meant that Puerto Rico has been able to import food, fuel and supplies more quickly, and for half the costs, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

With the 1920 law back in effect, the island will go back to paying much higher shipping costs to import supplies. The Jones Act requires that all goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by American-owned and operated ships, which are more expensive vessels than others in the global marketplace. That’s meant that Puerto Rico pays double the costs for goods from the U.S. mainland compared with neighboring islands ― and that U.S. vessels are making bank. [Continue reading…]

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Desperate San Juan Mayor takes to Twitter after Trump administration ignores requests for help

ThinkProgress reports: By official estimates, just under 12 percent of power is restored on the island. Even drinking water in many areas remains limited: just over half of customers reliant on Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) have potable water.

Mayor Cruz said the federal government’s response has been slow, inadequate, or downright nonexistent. She said FEMA had offered “no response” after a hospital requested aid.


Mayor Cruz repeatedly tweeted “WE NEED WATER!” throughout the early hours of the Sunday. She shared photos of volunteers and continue to plea for help, saying authorities in the federal government “do not want to help.” [Continue reading…]

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An exodus from Puerto Rico could remake Florida politics

The New York Times reports: Every day dozens of Puerto Ricans straggle into the Orlando area, fleeing their homes and lives ravaged by Hurricane Maria. In the months to come, officials here said, that number could surge to more than 100,000.

And those numbers could remake politics in Florida, a state where the last two presidential and governor’s races were decided by roughly one percentage point or less.

There are more than a million Puerto Ricans in Florida, a number that has doubled since 2001, driven largely until now by a faltering economy. But their political powers have evolved slowly in this state, and the wave of potential voters from the island could quickly change that calculus.

If the estimates hold, and several officials said they might be low, the Puerto Rican vote, which has been strongly Democratic, could have rough parity with the Cuban vote in the state, for years a bulwark for Republicans in both state and national races.

“What’s clear is that this is going to be a more powerful swing group,” said Anthony Suarez, a lawyer here, who has run for office as both a Republican and a Democrat. “Just like everybody has to go to Miami and stop in Versailles to have coffee to court the Cuban community, that is going to start happening here.” [Continue reading…]

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FEMA removes statistics about drinking water access and electricity in Puerto Rico from website

The Washington Post reports: As of Wednesday, half of Puerto Ricans had access to drinking water and 5 percent of the island had electricity, according to statistics published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on its Web page documenting the federal response to Hurricane Maria.

By Thursday morning, both of those key metrics were no longer on the Web page.

FEMA spokesman William Booher noted that both measures are still being reported on a website maintained by the office of Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, www.status.pr. According to that website, which is in Spanish, 9.2 percent of the island now has power and 54.2 percent of residents have access to drinking water. Booher said that these measures are also shared in news conferences and media calls that happen twice a day, but he didn’t elaborate on why they are no longer on the main FEMA page. [Continue reading…]

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