THE DEPARTURE from Puerto Rico this week of the Army general who led the military’s response to Hurricane Maria is being depicted as a sign the island is no longer in crisis mode but instead is transitioning to long-term recovery. No matter what terms are used, it is clear there are still enormous problems in Puerto Rico, with far too many people living in conditions that simply would not be tolerated on the mainland. More than ever, the people of Puerto Rico must not be forgotten. Those charged with rebuilding the island need to show they are up to the task and not repeat the mistakes that marked the initial response to the catastrophic storm.
It has been nearly two months since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, yet the majority of the island’s 3.4 million residents are still without electricity in what ranks as the largest blackout in U.S. history. No one has a clear handle on when the lights will be back on. Other problems include damaged homes, people in shelters, lack of access to clean water and, the New York Times reported, fears of a full-fledged mental-health crisis.
Nonetheless, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, dispatched to the island a week after Maria hit once it had become clear the federal response was too slow and too small, announced troops would begin to wind down operations. He explained that the military’s mission — clearing roads, search-and- rescue work, helping restore communications, opening ports around Puerto Rico — was over. The long-term work of rebuilding was now up to the local government and federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA officials have characterized their actions as the largest and longest in response to a natural emergency and say they will be there for the long haul. That’s good to hear. Also good is the decision by the Trump administration to not just rebuild but also allow for enhancement and improvements in infrastructure projects. So, for example, a traditional power grid could be replaced with solar- or wind-power components. Getting Congress to approve the necessary resources will be key.
Puerto Rico’s governor has asked for $94.4 billion, a request that hasn’t been helped by the troubling questions that have been raised about the decision of the government power company to give a lucrative no-bid contract for energy restoration to a small start-up firm based in Montana. Why didn’t it call on the mutual aid network proven to be effective in helping other places recover from storms? Why didn’t it follow its own lawyers’ advice about problems with the $300 million contract?
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló canceled the contract, and the head of Puerto Rico’s electric utility has resigned, but the lingering questions, as well as doubts that have been raised about the government’s official death toll, underscore the need for Congress to not just write a check but also ensure the money will be put to its best use. If Mr. Rosselló is unable to provide that assurance, Congress should consider whether the federal oversight board put in place last year to supervise Puerto Rico’s finances should be given more authority to help speed recovery.