READ: Why Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Crisis and Hurricane Irma Are a Catastrophic Combination

By Ayana Byrd Sep 08, 2017

Hurricane Irma skirted Puerto Rico on Wednesday (September 6), killing at least three people and leaving one million people without power. The destruction would have been worse if the storm had made landfall on the island, but it remained at sea. And it’s a good thing: Though it was spared the brunt of Irma, Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis has already put the island in a uniquely vulnerable position.

In an article published yesterday (September 7) in The Washington Post, Carla Minet, the executive director at the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, argues that the storm was the last thing that the island needed—and, possibly, the very thing that may present a chance to move into a better future.

The piece, titled “Puerto Rico Wasn’t Ready for Hurricane Irma. We Couldn’t Possibly Be,” reports that the island took a pro-active approach to preparing for the storm, including opening shelters and alerting people to oncoming dangers. But Minet believes no approach would have been enough, based on current realities: 

But Irma—a storm the likes of which we haven’t seen here in decades—is heading for an island whose resources to truly prepare for an emergency are already in grave doubt. After a decade of mass migration to the U.S. mainland, prompted by an economic crisis that feels as though it will never end and arbitrary austerity measures taken to allegedly fix it, a giant storm is the last thing Puerto Rico needs.

The island declared bankruptcy in May of this year. Fiscal austerity plans have led to shuttering some public schools, including a number which served as shelters during past hurricanes. To make up for the lower number of school shelters, private aid organizations have stepped in. “One of them, Iniciativa Comunitaria, set up a shelter for homeless people in San Juan in only two days, using donations and volunteer work,” the article reads.

The fiscal crisis has also led to other trickle-down problems in the wake of Irma:

Recently certified fiscal plans call for big reductions in government expenditures—including public services of the sort that are needed to prepare and recover from a massive hurricane. Our infrastructure is already deteriorating due to years of deferred maintenance the government didn’t prioritize. And we have no economic development strategy to get out of the cycle. A dip in tourism caused by storm damage will only make things worse.

In addition, the author writes that the Fiscal Control Board, a board of seven people appointed by the White House to oversee restructuring the island’s $72 billion debt, could use the failure of the Electric Power Authority to restore power sooner than the two to four months predicted as rationale to privatize the utility company.  

It is Minet’s belief that little was learned or understood after Category 5 Hurricane Hugo hit Puerto Rico in 1989, nearly 30 years ago. The article ends with questions whose answers she hopes could save the island:

Maybe Irma and our fiscal crisis represents a new wake-up call.

When we thought nothing could be worse, we got this, too. Will our country take this chance to recover once and for all on its own terms? What will our leaders do?

Read the entire article here.