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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A tale of two Puerto Ricos: What Trump saw — and what he didn’t

The Washington Post reports: The Puerto Rico that President Trump saw during his four-hour visit on Tuesday afternoon was that of Angel Pérez Otero, the mayor of Guaynabo, a wealthy San Juan suburb known for its amenity-driven gated communities that was largely spared when Hurricane Maria hit nearly two weeks ago.

Pérez Otero led Trump and his entourage on a walking tour of a neighborhood, where high-speed winds had blown out some second-story windows and knocked over a few trees — but where life seemed to be returning to normal, thanks to assistance from the government. Neighbors stood outside their homes ready to warmly greet the president, their phones powered up and ready to snap photos.

One homeowner told Trump that he lost a couple windows and still hasn’t regained electricity, but he was never worried about his family’s safety.

“We have a good house, thank God,” he told the president.

“That’s fantastic,” Trump said. “Well, we’re going to help you out. Have a good time.”

If the president had traveled a little deeper into the island, to the communities that sustained some of the heaviest damage, he would have witnessed a very different Puerto Rico. [Continue reading…]

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White House dials back Trump’s vow to clear Puerto Rico’s debt

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration on Wednesday walked back the president’s apparent vow to wipe out Puerto Rico’s debt, suggesting that the island would have to solve its own fiscal woes despite the catastrophic damage it has endured from two powerful hurricanes.

“I wouldn’t take it word for word with that,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said on CNN in reference to President Trump’s suggestion that the United States might clear Puerto Rico’s debt.

Mr. Mulvaney said that the administration would be focusing its efforts on helping Puerto Rico rebuild from storm damage but that the commonwealth would continue to proceed through the debt restructuring process it was undertaking before the storm.

“Puerto Rico is going to have to figure out how to fix the errors that it’s made for the last generation on its own finances,” Mr. Mulvaney said.

For more than a year, Puerto Rico has clashed with investors who hold slivers of its $73 billion debt, and who have pushed the United States territory to pay up.

Confusion over the future of that debt was ignited on Tuesday when Mr. Trump raised the prospect of erasing it. [Continue reading…]

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In San Juan, Trump tells Puerto Ricans that they have been lucky

Philip Gourevitch writes: One of the more memorable headlines of the past quarter century read, simply, “If Bosnians were Dolphins.” It appeared in Commentary magazine, on an article by Edward Luttwak, which began, “If Bosnian Muslims had been bottle-nosed dolphins, would the world have allowed Croats and Serbs to slaughter them by the tens of thousands?” That question came to mind as Donald Trump flew south to spend a few hours in Puerto Rico, nearly two weeks after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria: two weeks during which it became clear that the Administration had done practically nothing to prepare the island for the alarmingly forecast storm; two weeks in which the federal response to the storm’s ravages has only gradually approached something like a mobilization that would have been appropriate on Day One for a much lesser calamity; two weeks in which nearly all of Puerto Rico has been without electricity, and more than half the population has been without access to potable water; two weeks in which Puerto Rico’s frail grew frailer, its sick grew sicker, its sense of abandonment grew more desperate; two weeks in which the President focussed on talking about what a great job he and his team were doing (“A-plus”), tweeting contempt at Puerto Ricans, collectively, and at the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, specifically; two weeks in which the relative effectiveness and success of the federal government’s preparation for and response to Hurricane Harvey’s assault on Texas and Irma’s rampage in Florida threw the dereliction of duty in Puerto Rico into ever starker relief; two weeks in which we were reminded that whenever we speak of a humanitarian crisis we are really speaking of a political crisis. All of which raises the question: If Puerto Ricans could vote, would they be so grossly ill served?

The press has been at pains to explain that Puerto Rico is not a foreign country but an American territory whose three and a half million people are U.S. citizens. Repeating this fact is essential service journalism: as the Times has reported, about half of America’s non-Puerto Rican population was unaware of that fact—and, as my colleague Amy Davidson Sorkin has written, Trump’s remarks did nothing to inform them otherwise. And, yet, Puerto Ricans are not citizens like the rest of us, because Puerto Rico is not a state. It is a so-called commonwealth of the United States, whose people are denied electoral representation in the federal government that decides their political destiny: no voice in Congress, no vote in Presidential elections. This arrangement, born of America’s conquest of the island, in the Spanish-American War, makes the islanders more like colonial subjects than citizens of a democratic republic. They are, in effect, second-class citizens. [Continue reading…]

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The death toll in Puerto Rico isn’t being accurately documented or reported

Vox reports: Twelve days ago, Hurricane Maria trashed Puerto Rico, demolishing its already weak power, communications, and transportation infrastructure. The storm quickly gave way to a humanitarian crisis, with many of Puerto Rico’s residents struggling to access food, water, and fuel to run generators and cars. Help has been slow to arrive. And with each passing day, we’re learning more about the frightening conditions on the ground, from the sick being turned away from barely functioning hospitals to mothers desperate for water for their babies.

But one figure is disquietingly absent: an accurate death toll.

The official death count has not budged since Wednesday, when the Puerto Rican government said that just 16 people had been killed as a result of the storm. That prompted President Trump to claim Tuesday on his visit to the island that it wasn’t a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which had thousands of deaths.

Yet there is good reason to believe the actual figure is much higher than 16, and will continue to climb.

Omaya Sosa Pascual is a reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) in San Juan. She was skeptical of the government’s figure of 16 and began to call the 69 hospitals around the country, asking them about deaths related to the hurricane.

Pascual spoke to dozens of doctors, administrators, morgue directors, and funeral directors around the country, and wrote up her initial findings in a September 28 report in the Miami Herald. She then got Puerto Rico’s public safety secretary to confirm Monday that there have been dozens more deaths than the official statistic reflects. By her count, there are now an estimated 60 confirmed deaths linked to the hurricane and possibly hundreds more to come.

So why has the government been so slow to document the dead? Is this a cover-up, or just an administrative casualty of the all-encompassing crisis?

One part of the answer is simple: The situation is so chaotic that death certificates aren’t being signed, which means deaths aren’t being officially recorded.

“Everything in the government has collapsed,” Pascual told me by phone from the parking lot of a San Juan medical center, one of the few places in the city where she said she could get a reliable cellphone signal. “Some of the people who work in the government lost their homes themselves and aren’t at work. So they can’t do death certificates. The dead can’t be documented because of all the logistics and legal aspects of declaring someone dead.”

Still, she said, “not being able to document it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” [Continue reading…]

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Oxfam criticizes U.S. government response in Puerto Rico

CNN reports: Oxfam, a global organization working to end poverty, is criticizing the United States government’s response to the crisis in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The group specifically criticized President Donald Trump’s administration.

“Oxfam has monitored the response in Puerto Rico closely, and we are outraged at the slow and inadequate response the US government has mounted in Puerto Rico,” Oxfam America President Abby Maxman said in a statement. “Clean water, food, fuel, electricity, and health care are in desperately short supply and quickly dwindling, and we’re hearing excuses and criticism from the administration instead of a cohesive and compassionate response.”

The group rarely criticizes government strategies in crises affecting wealthy nations such as the US.

“The US has more than enough resources to mobilize an emergency response but has failed to do so in a swift and robust manner,” Maxman said. [Continue reading…]

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In San Juan, we wait hours to buy groceries. We’re the lucky ones

Armando Valdés Prieto writes: My pregnant wife and I stood in line for two hours outside our neighborhood grocery store over the weekend. Once inside, we found that most essential products were scarce, and we were limited in the number we could buy of each item.

But we’re in Puerto Rico’s capital city, and we’re middle class, and that makes us pretty lucky. Millions of poor Puerto Ricans are worse off since Hurricane Maria hit, and if the government and aid organizations can’t figure out the best way to deploy lifesaving supplies to the rest of the island, it will only get bleaker.

In San Juan, folks have to choose between different lines: at the supermarket for food, at the gas station for a fill-up or at the bank to access cash — the only form of payment accepted at most stores, since ongoing telecommunications outages make it difficult to accept credit cards or other electronic payment methods. Even the commonwealth’s Nutritional Assistance Program, which feeds 1.3 million people out of Puerto Rico’s population of nearly 3.4 million, operates mostly electronically, which means it’s currently also not accepted at many retail outlets, so poorer residents can’t buy food without cash. Thankfully, many low-lying areas in San Juan do have potable water service. El Nuevo Día, the island’s largest and most influential newspaper, reported on Friday that 45 to 50 percent of the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority’s customers now have service. But that number has barely budged since the first wave of repairs began days after the disaster.

Still, outside the San Juan metro area, reports paint starker choices. In many rural towns there are no lines; stores haven’t been able to open, tanker trucks can’t reach distant gas stations to resupply and many bank branches are still closed. Water service has not been reestablished in many areas, and people I’ve spoken with tell me of hour-long slogs just to get drinking water for their families. Rural residents have no basic goods to buy, and no way to buy them even if supplies arrived. They need help immediately.

This past weekend, I spoke to an aid worker for an international NGO and a high-ranking official in the federal disaster response bureaucracy in Puerto Rico. To my surprise, they both agreed that the island’s current predicament is one of the worst, if not the worst, natural and human catastrophe they’d worked on. [Continue reading…]

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Trump faces political danger in visit to Puerto Rico

Politico reports: President Donald Trump on Tuesday will come face to face with the “politically motivated ingrates” he slammed on Twitter just days before.

The president will land in Puerto Rico after spending much of the past week boasting about a wildly successful response effort that hasn’t matched the reality of the hurricane-ravaged island and after picking a fight over the weekend with the San Juan mayor.

The visit comes as he’s also attempting to be soother-in-chief for the nation after a shooting in Las Vegas left at least 59 dead on Sunday night — the first time he’s had to navigate two disasters of national scope that are politically perilous for any president, but especially one prone to off-the-cuff riffs. [Continue reading…]

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What Puerto Rico needs

Simon Johnson writes: President Donald Trump and the US Congress are coming under mounting pressure to increase assistance to Puerto Rico. The devastation caused there last week by Hurricane Maria has only exacerbated severe longer-term problems resulting from deferred maintenance on the island’s critical infrastructure. Puerto Rico needs more than short-term assistance (although this is also urgent); it needs bipartisan support to rebuild, with an initial and essential focus on a more robust and cheaper supply of electricity.

The existing electricity grid has substantially collapsed, with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) estimating that up to 90% of the transmission system may have been destroyed by the hurricane. A major dam is at risk. Damage to the air traffic control infrastructure has severely limited flights to and from the island. As Governor Ricardo Rosselló has stated publicly, there is now a real risk of a major humanitarian disaster. Donations are flowing in, but the total will be small relative to what is needed.

The Trump administration says that FEMA is working hard and effectively. Let’s hope they are right. There will be a lot of questions about whether Puerto Rico’s roughly 3.4 million US citizens receive the same support as Texas and Florida (and other parts of the 50 states) when natural disaster strikes. But the bigger question is this: What will be done – and by whom – to help Puerto Rico really recover?

Puerto Rico – a dependent territory of the US – needs major investment in its essential infrastructure to bring it at least to the level of the 50 states. After the humanitarian situation is stabilized, policymakers should focus on providing Puerto Rico with stable, reliable, and cost-effective electric power, generated primarily by renewables and distributed over a smart, resilient grid. Ensuring energy availability will be indispensable for stability and sustained economic growth. [Continue reading…]

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Trapped in the mountains, Puerto Ricans don’t see help, or a way out

The Washington Post reports: The day Hurricane Maria swiped through these mountains, the loose, wet dirt started to tumble and roll. It broke through the gate and through the door. It moved with ferocity and determination. It covered and filled everything.

“It looked like chocolate,” said Ferdinand Ramos, a 63-year-old retired police officer whose home was directly in the path of massive landslides. The viscous mud crashed into his living room and kitchen, leaving a shin-high sludge.

Then, for almost nine days, Ramos and Norma Jimenez and members of their extended family were trapped on their property. No one came to help. Their home on the remote outskirts of this town 60 miles southwest of San Juan became a prison.

Even after they cleaned up inside, they had no way to leave — the mud, broken trees and chunks of debris had piled up outside. On Thursday — eight days after Maria had passed — a municipal utility worker cleared their street.

The family had almost run out of drinking water. Their isolated community of Caonillas had received no aid from the local or federal government, residents said. And they had no way to make the perilous trek to town; the winding roads had been obliterated and six of the family’s cars had been stored in a garage that collapsed, crushing five of the vehicles and sending the sixth sliding down the mountainside and into a river. [Continue reading…]

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