SAN JUAN — On the surface, Puerto Rico was as ready as it could be for Hurricane Irma. Government agencies and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló have been taking a proactive, hands-on approach. President Trump has declared a state of emergency, which will generate emergency funds from the federal government. Refugees from the northeastern corner of the island, where Irma’s Category 5 winds already reached Wednesday afternoon, were arriving in shelters. A few got in with their pets; others with their most valued documents, a pillow and a blanket to receive a bunk bed to rest, food and water.
But Irma — a storm the likes of which we haven’t seen here in decades — is heading for an island whose resources to truly prepare for an emergency are already in grave doubt. After a decade of mass migration to the U.S. mainland, prompted by an economic crisis that feels as though it will never end and arbitrary austerity measures taken to allegedly fix it, a giant storm is the last thing Puerto Rico needs.
Already, 45.5 percent of Puerto Ricans live below the federal poverty line, and the island is the most impoverished and unequal of all states and territories. Fiscally bankrupt, the commonwealth is now under a fiscal control board appointed by the federal government a year ago to decide on its finances and budget. The board also handles the fiscal management and debt restructuring for the island’s government and public corporations, some of which just started a court mediation process through a special proceeding similar to bankruptcy.
In a way, Irma hits the spot to combine with the “perfect storm” that has been developing in Puerto Rico. Recently certified fiscal plans call for big reductions in government expenditures — including public services of the sort that are needed to prepare and recover from a massive hurricane. Our infrastructure is already deteriorating due to years of deferred maintenance the government didn’t prioritize. And we have no economic development strategy to get out of the cycle. A dip in tourism caused by storm damage will only make things worse.
Meanwhile, because this is the first major natural event with social media available, most Puerto Ricans are venting their fears away in posts and memes, and prevention to-do lists are everywhere. From the diaspora, everyone is just as anxious about their families and their properties, and they don’t hesitate to express their concerns and prayers using every social-media network. Puerto Rico has outlived many natural disasters, and they usually bring out solidarity and community ties. But this will be the worst, experts say.
Floods are expected, which will cause health and housing problems for the most vulnerable and road troubles, on top of the ones we already have.
Repairing damage to the electrical system could take two to four months, the Electric Power Authority announced two days ago to widespread outrage. It only shows how weak and unreliable that system is. Frequent electric outages have been more common in the last year, due to the agency’s workforce decline, with about 5,000 fewer employees in the past five years.
Now Irma may be used as a new rationale for the strategy of privatizing the public service by the Fiscal Control Board, whose members have publicly declared support for selling off the utility. The agency announced that 44 percent of the population — 692,350 clients — were already without electricity service by Wednesday afternoon. People will go nuts without power for more than a week. The trouble is caused mainly by poor maintenance, which is in turn caused by poor management, but they will only see the end result and in the end, they may support the board’s proposal.
The last time Puerto Rico prepared for a hurricane was in 2014, when Bertha arrived as a Category 1 storm. Then, there were 372 shelters available in public schools across the island. Today, only 329 of those are open, because the control board and Roselló’s administration have been closing public schools. There are other shelters, though: A total of 406 are ready, of which over 156 are already operating. Some of those extra shelters are part of a safety net that nonprofit organizations have put together, despite the big budget cuts they have also been through in the past years. One of them, Iniciativa Comunitaria, set up a shelter for homeless people in San Juan in only two days, using donations and volunteer work.
The budget cuts, in an already weak economy, will probably make the storm’s social impact worse. A forecast before Irma arrived by the Center for a New Economy think tank’s policy director, Sergio M. Marxuach, projected the catastrophic effects of the Fiscal Plan that was recently approved: high probability of another lost decade, continued population loss due to migration and lower birth rates, lower employment, less access to public education, pension cuts, worsening health outcomes, higher mortality and lower life expectancy, and in the end — of course — higher poverty and inequality. Now add in the cataclysm of a monster hurricane that the plan never accounted for.
The worst part of Irma is still to come, in the next hours and days when intense and constant rain is expected. This is the time when life and property are most at stake. In San Juan, big trees were falling down in the main streets Wednesday evening, leaving some impassable. And a lot of heavy wind and intermittent rain have been keeping people out of the road.
In 1989, another Category 5 hurricane with half the intensity left the island devastated. For those of us who experienced the madness of Hurricane Hugo, Irma may look like a new starting point almost 30 years later. We should have learned something from Hugo. Who benefited from that tragedy? Who will benefit now? Did we set up long-term sustainable public policies? I don’t think we did. Maybe Irma and our fiscal crisis represents a new wake-up call.
When we thought nothing could be worse, we got this, too. Will our country take this chance to recover once and for all on its own terms? What will our leaders do?