It took me four days after Hurricane María to reach all of my family in Puerto Rico. Concern for their safety and the wellbeing of my island was all I could think about. I couldn’t sleep or concentrate in class, but still, I was one of the lucky few.
A month after the storm, hundreds of families have still not found missing loved ones. In the island’s rural municipalities, which were hardest hit by the storm, the situation is teetering on the brink of being a failed state. According to the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, the official death count of 48 does not account for the hundreds of bodies still in hospital morgues. Eighty five percent of Puerto Ricans still don’t have electricity; 1 million lack clean drinking water; and 75% of communications antennas are down. Hospitals struggle with power outages and medicine shortages, while an outbreak of leptospirosis spreads. Meanwhile the government can’t collect taxes; it is cash-strapped and lacks access to financial markets; and it can only enforce the law in the areas around and in San Juan.
As all of this unfolds, President Trump has focused on golfing, throwing paper towels at people, fighting with the mayor of San Juan, and playing down the extent of the disaster and its long-term consequences.
Just the latest
The Trump administration’s response to the crisis has paled in comparison to the responses to Hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida. While more than 30,000 federal personnel have been dedicated to the recover on the mainland, only 14,000 have been sent to Puerto Rico. For most of the island, power won’t be restored until December at the earliest. Instead of an effective relief package, Congress has opted to provide a loan of $4.9 billion to a Puerto Rican government that is already $74 billion in debt.
The Puerto Rico I was born and raised in is disappearing, and not just because of the immediate destruction caused by the hurricane. A mass exodus of people and a deflationary spiral are unfolding as a result of the federal government’s apathetic response to the humanitarian crisis.
Since 2004, Puerto Rico’s population has decreased, from 3.8 to 3.4 million. At the same time, the island has lost nearly 20% of its economic output, triggered by the elimination of Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code in 2006. According to a study by the Hunter College Center for Puerto Rican Studies, approximately 470,000 people—or 14% of the island’s population—are expected to leave the island by 2019. The rapid decay of economic conditions as a result of Hurricane María has removed the remaining incentives for Puerto Ricans to remain on the island. The economy is at a standstill. Homes have been destroyed, businesses are unable to operate, employment is more precarious than ever, and public schools and universities reamin closed.
With little more than the clothes on their back, families are camping for days in airport terminals to catch flights out to Florida. Professionals and wealthy families are no longer the only ones leaving; now it is my mother’s hairdresser, my first grade English teacher, my cousins, and my grandfather—people that are the backbone of my island’s service economy and its family base.
The economic effects of this population flight will be devastating. The Climate Impact Lab estimates that Hurricane María will reduce per capita income by 21% over the next 15 years. Consistent problems like inequality and poverty, which stood at 44.9% before the crisis, will rapidly worsen. With the majority of people departing being working-age individuals, labor productivity and labor participation—which stood at 40.3% in 2016—will plummet.
To avoid this deflationary cycle, the federal government must invest heavily in Puerto Rico’s economy to give the island the fiscal push it needs to restore growth. With estimated damages at $150 billion, local economist Gustavo Vélez estimates that more than $60 billion in infrastructural investment is necessary to restart the economy.
But as the steady departure of Puerto Ricans over the past decade has shown, the greatest risk of not making a sufficient investment in Puerto Rico will be the loss of its human resources and the collapse of its social fabric. Cell towers, water systems, and electrical plants can all be rebuilt in time. Getting Puerto Rico back on its feet will be nearly impossible if there isn’t a sufficient response to rebuild the island’s economy and the morale and hope of its people.
As my mother recently told me on the phone “The only thing we can do now is pray to God for things to get better.”
Stimulus or exodus?
1928 was the last time a hurricane of this magnitude directly struck Puerto Rico. At the time, Hurricane Felipe battered the island’s economy, damaging 99% of the island’s buildings. It took more than 5 years for the island’s agricultural sector to recover. The Great Depression compounded the crisis, and Puerto Rico remained the second poorest economy in the Western Hemisphere until 1952.
History has a knack of repeating itself. Then, much like now, the federal government avoided its responsibility toward Puerto Rico and provided limited aid to the island. It took more than two decades after Hurricane Felipe for the U.S. to implement policies to attract investment to the island and generate economic growth. The political will in the U.S. to assist its territory was long in coming, but when it came Puerto Rico rapidly transitioned from the “poorhouse of the Caribbean” to a “window for democracy.”
The United States government must meet its responsibility to the 3.4 million citizens on the island and, by extension, the 5.5 million Puerto Ricans in the mainland. Every day, more lives are at risk and more people are forced to leave the island. President Trump and the huge government machinery that he pretends to direct have the power to solve this crisis. They must act now. Puerto Rico cannot survive two more decades of economic decay.
Giovanni E. Pagán Vélez is a first-year student at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs completing a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. Giovanni was born and raised in Puerto Rico. You can follow him @GiovanniEPagan