The media glosses over the root cause that inhibit attempts to rebuild Puerto Rico after the ravages of the latest hurricane. It’s important to understand that cause, because the same mistakes could someday affect the entire United States.
While some circulate an incorrect narrative that the Trump Administration was less enthusiastic about addressing Puerto Rico than either Florida or Houston, the truth is rather different.
Washington has provided a substantial amount of assistance. According to Gov. Ricardo Rossello, “Puerto Rico officials continue to work closely with the Defense Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and with state partners through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact…We have over 12,000 — almost 13,000 — DoD personnel in Puerto Rico, over 4,000 Puerto Rico National Guard and EMACs together. There’s an expectation of 3,000 more to come to Puerto Rico in the next couple of weeks as well. The U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USS Comfort, has also been sent to the Island. The Department of Health and Human Services is using the Emergency Prescription Assistance program to provide care for upwards of 500,000 residents.”
Some have described the Pentagon’s efforts as “Militarizing” the reconstruction effort, a move necessary because in a number of the Island’s 78 municipalities, local officials have failed to provide an efficient effort.
Clearly, however, Puerto Rico’s recovery is not moving as rapidly as that of Florida or Houston. The reasons have to do with both geography and politics.
The most obvious fact is that Puerto Rico is, of course, an island, so transportation from the mainland must face an additional hurdle. The ability of nongovernmental assistance, the extraordinary efforts of private citizens who came from states adjacent to Texas and Florida, to rush to the aid of those in need is very sharply reduced. The complications do not end there. As noted in the official Puerto Rico website, unlike the flatlands of Houston and Florida, “The island of Puerto Rico has surprising geographical diversity with some 60% of the island’s terrain being very hilly… The top four highest mountains in Puerto Rico are Cerro Punta, Rosa, Guilarte and the Tres Picachos. They range from 3093 to 4389 ft. The mountainous interior is formed by the Cordillera Central Range and this is formed by a central mountain chain ranging from Mayaguez to Aibonito.”
But politics, and bad planning, have a lot to do with the ongoing plight, as well.
President Obama’s stimulus cost $792 billion dollars. Supposedly, $41.4 billion went to energy programs, including $4.4 billion to modernize the electrical grid. Puerto Rico received about $6.5 billion of that. The question is: Why were critical energy needs, both in Puerto Rico and nationwide, left totally unaddressed? Throughout the United States, the crucial issue of protecting the electrical grid from an EMP attack was ignored. In Puerto Rico, protecting the island’s fragile and outdated electrical infrastructure from the effects of a hurricane was not addressed. Despite all that, President Obama claimed he couldn’t find “shovel ready jobs” to invest his stimulus dollars in. Those funds, instead, went to sources that provided less benefit to the economy than they did to the political fortunes of the Obama Administration.
Recently, The Hill noted that “Puerto Rico was a catastrophe of corruption, mismanagement, incompetence and ignorance long before the added misery wrought by Hurricane Maria, which exposed to the world what was there to be seen all along: an island ill-prepared for a sunny day, much less a stormy one. For at least a decade, the media has been sounding the alarm about the crumbling infrastructure and financial mismanagement of Puerto Rico. But it all fell on deaf ears. Let’s flashback to August 2014, when Reuters reporter Luciana Lopez showed that Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was teetering on insolvency. The power company relied too heavily on expensive oil and was plagued by aging infrastructure dating back to the 1960s, a bloated workforce, and a billing system that was arbitrary and difficult to justify.”
For far too long, critical electrical infrastructure problems have been ignored. This challenge includes both the facilities themselves, and the security surrounding them.
Rebecca Smith, writing in the Wall Street Journal, reported:
“The U.S. electric system is in danger of widespread blackouts lasting days, weeks or longer through the destruction of sensitive, hard-to-replace equipment. Yet records are so spotty that no government agency can offer an accurate tally of substation attacks, whether for vandalism, theft or more nefarious purposes. Most substations are unmanned and often protected chiefly by chain-link fences. Many have no electronic security, leaving attacks unnoticed until after the damage is done. Even if there are security cameras, they often prove worthless. In some cases, alarms are simply ignored.”
Add to that analysis the near-imminent threat of an EMP attack by North Korea or other potential opponent, which could, quite literally, destroy all electrical generating capacity in the nation for well over a year, resulting in devastating casualties.
Beyond security, America’s electrical infrastructure is simply outdated. The American Society of Civil Engineers reveals that “Much of the U.S. energy system predates the turn of the 21st century. Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity. Energy infrastructure is undergoing increased investment to ensure long-term capacity and sustainability; in 2015, 40% of additional power generation came from natural gas and renewable systems. Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.”
Puerto Rico’s dilemma may be a harbinger of things to come.