Five days after the hurricane hit, Donald Trump tweeted that “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble…”. This was his first response to the crisis, managing to be both insensitive and callous. This contrasts to Texas and Florida, who received immediate presidential response: a portent for the ensuing handling of the crisis.
The federal response to the hurricane has been slow and disorganised. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is yet to access much of the island, partly due to the challenging terrain, and half of the island remains without electricity. Congress is also still to pass a relief fund, providing billions of dollars for much-needed repair works. The federal mismanagement in the immediate aftermath was compounded by PREPA – the Puerto Rico Power Company. PREPA signed a $300,000,000 repair contract with a company called Whitefish. This contract has since been terminated after outrage at the contract terms –audit was prohibited and aviation fuel, for example, was billed at three times the normal rate.
Blame for Puerto Rico's state of devastation can be partially apportioned to long-term financial mismanagement, for which both the local government and the US federal government are at fault. Puerto Rico has for the last decade struggled under a mountain of public debt. Prior to the 2007 financial crisis, the government of Puerto Rico borrowed heavily and enjoyed federal tax cuts. The combination of the expiry of these tax cuts and the financial crash hit the island’s finances hard and since 2007 the island has had just one year of financial growth - the necessary infrastructure maintenance and upgrades required to protect against natural disaster have been unaffordable.
The US response has been reflective of the attitudes of many Americans towards their territories: out of sight and out of mind. Only 53% of America's recently surveyed realised that the people of Puerto Rico are US citizens and historically, US behaviour regarding their territories has been less than stellar: in the 1950s, nuclear weapons’ tests were carried on Bikini Atoll – one of the Marshall Islands. The then inhabited Marshall Islands are now widely inhospitable and thick with nuclear fallout.
Puerto Rico finds itself at the epicentre of long-term mismanagement, federal disregard, and local ineptitude. Hurricane season is over, but Puerto Rico’s problems are yet to retreat over the horizon.
By Tobias Rankin