National

Puerto Rico Could Use Some More Big Government

Army engineers are working hard at hurricane cleanup. But citizens are disillusioned with Washington and San Juan.

Self help.

Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

You can’t blame Ana Rodriguez for feeling bitter.

In her hillside home in Cidra, Puerto Rico, a mountain town south of San Juan, she relies on a generator and doesn’t think she’ll have electricity for another year — despite Governor Ricardo Rossello’s recent promise to have 95 percent of Puerto Rico’s power generation restored by Dec. 15. Bent and toppled utility poles and licorice strands of downed power lines still embroider local roads nearly two months after Hurricane Maria roared through.

“There are lots of problems and no solutions,” Rodriguez said, noting that looters have been stealing batteries from cars and stripping copper from fallen power lines for resale on the black market. “We don’t have hope because we don’t believe in the government.”

QuickTake Puerto Rico's Debt

Cynicism about government was the product for sale by Donald Trump during his drain-the-swamp presidential campaign last year, and it's turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy here in Puerto Rico.

Trump and his White House have been duly lambasted for their initial lackadaisical response to Puerto Rico’s needs. And the president has routinely undermined his own emergency response teams here by reckless tweeting, errant public statements and an unwillingness to use his bully pulpit to focus attention on Puerto Rico.

To Rodriguez and her neighbors, it’s all enough to conclude that their governor is incompetent and that Trump hates Puerto Ricans.

Rodriguez and others in Cidra aren’t waiting for the government to arrive. They’re banding together informally to share food, water, supplies and support. But until the full force of government action is felt across the island, most of the 3.4 million Americans in Puerto Rico will be caught in a vise created by a decaying and outdated electrical grid, the ravages of a mammoth storm, and the reality that public utilities and public leadership — in San Juan and in Washington — offer the only major short-term fixes.

Rossello has provided frequent communiques about San Juan’s efforts. But whatever bucking up he extends to his voters, Rossello’s agenda — unless he decides to act more forcefully — is at the mercy of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or Prepa, a government-controlled but apparently relatively independent agency that oversees the antiquated grid.

Rossello’s own emergency-response agency, an umbrella group called AEMEAD that is meant to knit seven security agencies into a fast-response team, has been hampered by resignations, inexperience and bureaucratic infighting.

Rossello was in Washington this week asking for more money and greater federal support to rehabilitate the island and prevent an emergency from becoming a long-lasting humanitarian crisis. But his frequent lobbying of Congress and the Trump administration also highlights the other force hamstringing him: an inescapable need for federal expertise and funding.

Trump has been absent over the last month and his lack of interest in highlighting Puerto Rico’s woes is at odds to a certain extent with the efforts of some of the federal government’s emergency responders on the ground. They say they’ve been doing as much as they can, as quickly as they can, and that media criticism of Trump (from observers like me) unfairly overshadows their dedication and accomplishments.

“It’s hard to say how we could convey any more sense of urgency than we already have,” said Brigadier General Diana M. Holland, who is overseeing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ pivotal role in helping repair the power grid, clean up tons of wreckage and debris and assess the condition of the infrastructure. “We’re the preponderance of the effort here and we have leveraged all of our capability.”

“We have been so focused on this and asking how we can make it go faster while doing this the right way,” she added. “We’re very critical of ourselves and how we can do better. We think it’s gone as fast as it possibly can.”

Holland said that an early lack of access to ports and airstrips, and a complex supply chain stretching across an ocean, hasn’t just complicated her mission – it’s sometimes simply prevented her from getting things done. She also pointed out that the Army Corps wasn’t assigned grid repair work in Puerto Rico until Sept. 30, 10 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island. Operating out of a makeshift command center in a Sheraton Hotel, she said she remains amazed at the “magnitude, just the sheer magnitude” of the challenges her team faces repairing things here.

Visits to towns far away from San Juan, along the coasts and in the mountains, prove Holland’s point.

In Yabucoa, where Hurricane Maria made landfall along Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on Sept. 20, portions of the local baseball stadium’s metal roof are strewn like crumpled box tops around the building. Acres of trees remain brown and white spindles, stripped of their leaves. In nearby Guayama, some cell phone towers have been twisted into giant orange and white pretzels. In San Juan, the lights went out again on Wednesday, only hours after Rossello boasted on his Twitter feed that half the island’s power generation was finally back online (which also means, of course, that half still isn't).

Meanwhile, residents like Rodriguez remain on the blunt end of the crisis. She has lived in her current home, with sweeping views of a valley below it, for 26 years. She and her husband have made improvements to the property as time and money have allowed. They’ve raised two children there, including a daughter who is going to graduate school to study finance and accounting. But she said that after the hurricane her husband had to drain his retirement account to build a retaining wall around their hillside property to prevent any more land from slipping out from beneath her home when the next storm arrives.

Small expenses wear away at her as well. The price of staples like rice and water have jumped due to price-gouging. Generators are selling at a premium, and plugs that once sold for $16 now cost about $60. Cell phone service is haphazard and her landline is dead. Long queues for food and gas are common, the post office is off-kilter, the local hospital only got its electricity online recently and suicides seem more frequent. Rodriguez worries about the vulnerability of babies and senior citizens, and her friends and neighbors remain traumatized.

She says she’s grateful for the presence of troops and emergency workers, but she’s scornful of her governor and her president.

“The government uses the argument that the geography here is difficult as an excuse for why it’s taking so long to rebuild,” she said. “If you can send people to the moon, how come you can’t bring electricity to the local people?”

“I don’t know why Donald Trump hates Puerto Ricans,” she added, in what is a common refrain among the locals here. “We need help. We are U.S. citizens, even if Trump doesn’t know that.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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