What does the abandonment of Puerto Rico by the U.S. gov’t tell us about our future in a changing climate?

by Steve da Silva – Analysis / Op-Ed

October 31, 2017

In a world where climate change is accelerating as fast as the gap between the rich and the poor, the U.S. government’s callous, half-hearted response to the disaster that its citizens are facing in Puerto Rico is sending a message to the world’s majority: expect little to no relief from climate change from governments made for and run by tycoons and bankers.

The devastation of Hurricane Maria and the humanitarian crisis that followed

On September 20, 2017 Hurricane Maria ripped its way through the Caribbean island with winds that topped out at 280 km/h. Puerto Rico was inundated with 37 inches of rainfall; storm surges reached as high as nine feet in some coastal areas; and some areas were flooded to a depth of 15 feet. Maria was the second strongest storm in an Atlantic hurricane season that has been the worst on record by a series of measures.

Hurricane Maria wiped out the entirety of Puerto Rico’s power grid, as well as its cell phone network. Almost six weeks later, only 30% of the power grid had been restored, making the blackout the longest in American history. With no power, water treatment facilities have been offline, hospitals have been closed or in the dark, medications have spoiled due to lack of refrigeration, and businesses have been unable to operate due to lack of power and fuel.

A delegation of 50 volunteer nurses from National Nurses Union returned to the U.S. in the last week of October to report that the humanitarian crisis they observed was in ways worse than what they saw in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The nurses’ union has reported that black mold is spreading rapidly, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is making people stand in long lines to fill out paperwork just to access aid.

As many as one million Puerto Ricans have had to choose between dehydration or drinking contaminated water sources. The consumption of sewage-contaminated water has led to as many as 74 cases of waterborne leptospirosis, which has killed at least two people.  Another issue entirely has been the contamination from toxic waste that is leaking known carcinogens into people’s drinking water.

The food crisis is affecting twice as many people as the water crisis. Over 80% of Puerto Rico’s crops were destroyed in the hurricane.  As of mid-October, U.S. government agencies were shipping in some 200,000 military “ready-to-eat” meals a day, but some 2 million people are in daily need of food. This is enough supply for each person in need to eat only once every ten days. Among the foodstuffs being distributed, FEMA is being criticized for much of it being “junk” that includes pudding cups, beef jerky, and Skittles candy.

A suppressed death toll continues to justify minimalist relief efforts

Most people didn’t know until Hurricane Maria hit that Puerto Rico has the status of an “unincorporated territory” of the United States.  In other words, a colony. Puerto Rico has been a “possession” of the United States since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, when the island and its people changed hands, along with the Philippines and Guam, from the dying colonial power, Spain, to the rising colonial power, the United States. But, Puerto Ricans are American citizens who can travel and work throughout the United States like any other American. They just can’t vote for Congress or in the Presidential elections.

With each week that drags by, with the death toll rising from the collapse of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, Puerto Ricans are certainly asking themselves what value that citizenship has. Officially, the number of people killed by Hurricane Maria is 51 — a number so low that even mainstream media sources have begun to stir a controversy.

On October 11, Vox.com compiled reports from its work on the ground across Puerto Rico and suggested that the real death toll could be as high as 573. Two weeks later, Buzzfeed.com reported that one morgue in Aguadilla on the island’s northwestern tip has began to burn rotting bodies that have yet to be counted in official statistics. The NY Daily News has reported that there are more than 400 bodies in this one morgue alone.  Could Puerto Rico’s death toll actually be running into the thousands?

More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria, Congress finally passed a bill approving $36 billion in disaster aid. But these funds are to be divided across three storm-ravaged regions, Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas, as well as parts of California affected by this summer’s record-breaking wildfire season.

Among these funds, nearly half will never leave the spreadsheets of government agencies: $16 billion has been earmarked to write-off the debts of the National Flood Insurance Program. Another $5 billion is being given to Puerto Rico in the form of a loan, not a grant, which will only drive the already heavily-indebted territory one step closer to bankruptcy.

If the lacklustre relief efforts by the U.S. government has left anyone with questions about the priority of American citizens in Puerto Ricans, then look to statements from the President himself for clarity. On the same day Congress passed this disaster aid bill, after a week of congratulating himself for his assistance to Puerto Rico, Trump threatened to pull out relief workers, saying that they would not remain “forever” and that much of Puerto Rico’s crisis was of its own making.

Even more callous were comments from on-the-ground FEMA Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer Justo Hernandez, who had this to say in mid-October when asked by a CNN reporter if more assistance was needed: “I don’t know how much more [relief] we can bring into Puerto Rico without affecting the local economy. If I flood Puerto Rico with food and water, when is it that the local neighbors are going to reopen their supermarkets?”

Looking ahead for Puerto Rico and beyond

The most urgent task facing Puerto Ricans is the restoration of its power grid. Some six weeks after the storm, it’s unclear how long this is going to take. Controversy struck the one company that had been awarded with the $300 million contract to restore the power grid, sparking an FBI investigation. Whitefish reportedly has little to no experience in this line of work and had only two employees prior to being awarded the contract. No other bids were taken for the contract. As it turns out, the company hails from a small town in Montana that is home a member of Trump’s cabinet, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. As of October 29, Puerto Rico cancelled the contract, and its local power authority was only generating at 30% of its former capacity.

Left with few other options tens of thousands who could afford to have already left Puerto Rico for mainland U.S. Some 73,000 have passed through Miami International Airport alone by October 27.

Meanwhile, over three million Puerto Ricans who can’t afford to leave continue to languish in what has been an entirely preventable and unnecessarily protracted crisis.  One may wonder how any of this can be possible in 2017.

The answer to this question is not to be found in technical problems or technical solutions. It’s to be found in addressing the unprecedented scale of a socio-economic problem: the polarization of wealth the likes of which humanity has never seen. There is no easy profits to be made in rescuing Puerto Rico, and the U.S. government would rather reserve its budget increases for making more wars abroad.

What Puerto Rico is suffering is the brutish reality of a capitalist economic system that places profit-making and private capital above the lives of people. It is the same system, incidentally, that has and is destroying the habitability of our planet by burning fossil fuels with a reckless disregard for our immediate future.

Those of us who do not find ourselves in the winning margins of this system, the vast majority of us, must destroy this economic system as soon as we can.  Otherwise, the planet will destroy capitalism, consuming many of us along with it.