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Hurricane Maria reveals Puerto Rico’s distance from mainland America

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Almost a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the situation for the U.S. island territory remains bleak. Residents have expressed disappointment with the federal response as much of the island is still enduring a massive humanitarian crisis.

For the island’s 3.4 million residents, basic needs of daily life are still in limbo. Less than 15 percent of the island has electricity service. And nearly a third of the island still doesn’t have any running water.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited Puerto Rico to observe relief efforts. But Trump’s comments upon his return to the mainland generated anger. The president tweeted that FEMA and first-responders can’t remain in Puerto Rico “forever” and commented that the island’s economy and electric power system were a disaster even before the hurricane.

Partly in response to the president’s comments that local officials aren’t doing enough and his threats to withdraw assistance from Puerto Rico, Trump’s approval rating for handling the federal government’s response to recent hurricanes has dropped 20 points in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Despite Trump’s controversial remarks, a recent poll found that support for aid to Puerto Rico increased the most among Republicans and Trump voters who were previously unaware that Puerto Ricans are, in fact, fellow American citizens.

While many television news crews have left the island, other reporters are still working hard to get the word out about post-hurricane conditions in Puerto Rico. As more and more stories come out about the Trump administration’s botched efforts to bring aid to Puerto Rico, it’s worth considering where the island stood even before Hurricane Maria made landfall.

Situated in the Caribbean Sea about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Puerto Rico is a 3,500-square-mile island with 3.4 million residents. Despite its distance from Florida, it is closer to the U.S. mainland than either Alaska and Hawaii, which are both about 2,300 miles from the next nearest state.

Puerto Rico is one of the more highly developed islands in the Caribbean, but the standard of living there still trails far behind life in the U.S. states. The poverty rate in Puerto Rico is 46 percent, compared to a U.S. national rate of less than 15 percent. The median household income in Puerto Rico is $19,350, well behind the U.S. median of $55,775 and more than $20,000 lower than that of Mississippi, the state with the lowest household income.

Even though they’re U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans don’t have the same rights as residents of the 50 U.S. states. They don’t have federal representation in Washington. They can’t vote for president. There’s even legal confusion over whether a U.S. citizen in Puerto Rico could become president of the United States. Because of all this, it’s harder for Puerto Ricans to get their voices heard. Today, it is pleas for disaster relief. During the previous 10 years, it was appeals for debt relief.

“Historically, we’ve seen that the United States has left Puerto Rico on their backside on a lot of issues. Because of the hurricane, we’re now receiving more attention,” Adriana Gonzalez, environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club in Puerto Rico, told ThinkProgress.

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Diana Ofosu

Even before the storm, Puerto Rico suffered from a potable water problem. In 2015, 69.4 percent of the population in Puerto Rico, or more than 2.4 million people, got their water from community water systems that violated the federal health-based standards. For context, 100,000 people were potentially exposed to high levels of lead contamination in their water during the Flint, Michigan, drinking water crisis.

If Puerto Rico were a state, it would rank as the third-smallest in area, ahead of only Delaware and Rhode Island. Despite its small area, if granted statehood, Puerto Rico — which approved a resolution in June to become a state — would be the 30th most populous state in the union.

But Puerto Rico’s estimated population of 3.4 million is down more than 10 percent from its peak in 2004 of 3.8 million. By 2025, the island’s population is projected to fall below 3 million — a projection made prior to Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rico has been undergoing a decade-long recession that led to high unemployment and eventually forced the commonwealth into bankruptcy earlier this year. Puerto Rico began defaulting on its debts two years ago, seeking to avoid budget cuts that officials said would deal another blow to an already shrinking economy. In the wake of the storm, Puerto Rico bondholders are already expecting to get reduced repayments.

For the time being, though, addressing Puerto Rico’s debt problems is taking a backseat to getting residents access to basic services.

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Diana Ofosu

Puerto Rico’s governor has set a goal of restoring electric service to 30 percent of the island by the end October. The government hopes to have 95 percent of customers with electricity by December 15.

Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph that devastated the U.S. territory. The international airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, has reopened, packed with people who want to leave the island. Puerto Rico schools likely won’t open for weeks. Obtaining water, food, and fuel for cars turns into a daylong mission for each item. Cell phone service is slowly returning, but it’s still extremely spotty.

Unlike most residents on the mainland United States, Puerto Ricans are used to regular power outages. “We jokingly say, ‘I’m already accustomed to not having power because this has happened so much in recent years,’” said Gonzalez, who said electric poles and debris littered her street in San Juan for weeks after the hurricane.

As Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera wrote in an op-ed earlier this month, “Waiting is what Puerto Rico does best.” The island’s people waited 500 years for the Spanish to end their rule. But at the end of the 19th century, the Spanish empire was replaced by U.S. rule, which is nearing its 120th year.

Many of Puerto Rico’s residents share similar hardships to low-income residents across the mainland. They face heightened health hazards and vulnerabilities like residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward and Houston’s Manchester neighborhood, which have also experienced devastation from natural disasters in recent years.

“If you also look at a place like New Orleans and what has happened after Katrina, we know already that in other disaster situations, the preexisting inequalities just get exacerbated. And so the folks who were already suffering the most in these places are the ones who will benefit the least from the reconstruction,” Yarimar Bonilla, a noted social anthropologist, said in an interview with journalist Bill Moyers.

In Texas, wide-scale flooding from Hurricane Harvey led to the greatest misery for residents. Power outages were minimal as the winds died down by the time the storm came ashore. In Florida, Hurricane Irma’s high winds caused one of the largest natural disaster power outages in U.S. history. The day after the storm hit, 62 percent of Florida’s 10.5 million households were without power.

Power restoration efforts were swift in most parts of Florida, although some regions faced days-long outages. For the people of Puerto Rico, most are still sweltering in the dark in the wake of Maria, as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the government-owned electric utility, struggles to find its footing. Despite the shoddy service, customers of the bankrupt electric utility, which has $9 billion in debt, pay more for electricity than any other state but Hawaii.

PREPA delivers electricity to about 900,000 homes through 31,000 miles of distribution lines. The utility also owns and operates about 2,400 miles of major electric transmission lines. It is estimated that 80 percent of this electric infrastructure was “wiped out.”

Puerto Rico has traditionally relied on highly-polluting petroleum products to produce about two-thirds of its electricity. On the U.S. mainland, petroleum products fuel less than 1 percent of electricity generation.

Over the past two decades, though, the commonwealth has tried to diversify its power generation fuel sources. With the addition of natural gas at the Costa Sur generating facility in southern Puerto Rico, petroleum now serves as the fuel for about 49 percent of the island’s electricity, while natural gas supplies 32 percent, coal about 17 percent, and renewables about 2 percent.

Puerto Ricans deal with many of the same environmental issues as mainland residents. Opposition to the disposal of toxic coal ash in landfills has grown into a powerful movement over the past few years. Regulators granted AES Corp., the owners of the island’s only coal-fired power plant, permission to deposit coal ash in local landfills, reversing its promise from the 1990s that the coal ash would be transported off the island.

After Maria lashed the island, Puerto Rican officials released an official statement saying that coal ash at a landfill in Guayama was not flooded and that high winds had not blown away the coal ash. Local residents, however, are skeptical and are waiting for confirmation from people who have been able to visit the site. At another dump site, near the southern town of Peñuelas, the town’s residents have been blockading trucks carrying coal ash into their community.

Renewable energy advocates are pushing to move the island away from relying on centralized fossil fuel-fired plants, for both environmental and resiliency reasons. Solar companies are offering aid to the island while also promoting a more sustainable future and resilient energy system. Empowered by Light, a nonprofit group, and solar company Sunrun are working with nonprofit GivePower to provide Puerto Rico’s remote communities with solar-powered water desalination systems, water production systems, and portable solar-powered units, Common Dreams reported.

Some experts also suggest that segmenting Puerto Rico’s electric grid may be a much faster and more reliable rebuilding approach to repowering the island. A microgrid system could help the island have more reliable electricity and prevent such long and widespread outages the next time a storm hits, they say.

Gonzalez doesn’t believe it’s too soon to begin thinking about Puerto Rico’s future as an island less reliant on fossil fuels. Government agencies, as well as nonprofit, and business groups, can continue with the hard work of making sure people have enough food and clean water in the coming weeks and months. At the same time, Puerto Ricans also can begin the conversation of how they want to redevelop their island so that they can have a sustainable and prosperous future, she said.

“Hopefully we can continue capture the attention of the United States and move to not only rebuild the island but do a transformation of the electric and economic system. That’s what we need — not just to pay the bondholders but to have a booming island and economy,” Gonzalez said.

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