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Puerto Rico Still Suffering in the Dark

It was September 2017 when Hurricane Maria came and totally dismantled the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens on the Island of Puerto Rico. And today, nearly five months after the tropical storm hit, the island is still largely out of power and wallowing in inhumane conditions as the island is, in many places, a shell of its pre-storm self.

The government/industry forces tasked with addressing the crisis appear to be floundering amidst corruption, scandal, and ineptitude; and here in the States, no one seems to be interested anymore.

September shot of storm damage in Humacao, Puerto Rico. — Gizmodo

This has unfortunately turned into the perfect microcosm of America today. Our representatives are largely ignoring the wellbeing of average citizens, while passing legislation (RE: the recent tax cut) that disproportionately benefits their plutocrat donors.

What makes this story all the more representative of current American political culture is not simply the fundamental corruption of the institutional elites in this case, but the unfortunate reason why this story seems to gain less traction back on the U.S. mainland. See, many U.S. citizens fail to realize, or simply don’t care to acknowledge, that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Though not a state, Puerto Rico is still a U.S. territory and is governed by the US. The inability to identify with the other, in this case Puerto Ricans, has been at the heart of our politics of late.

The conditions speak for themselves, with 400,000 customers still without power at this juncture. On Sunday, Feb. 11, a breaker exploded, leaving 150,000 without power. This led to Puerto Rico University’s main campus, San Juan’s international airport, and the Centro Medico Medical Facility being out of power for hours. It isn’t clear what caused the breaker to explode, but the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is currently investigating the matter.

Fire from the breaker explosion in Northern Puerto Rico. — Commercial-News

Many locals have taken to stringing their own power lines to avoid losing power, and looking to temporary alternatives such as solar. There has also been an uptick in murders, with some experts also believing that the blackout has led to a decrease in a reporting of violent crime. With these conditions on the ground, what has been the response by the powers that be?

With a crumbling, decaying energy grid left unaddressed for far too long, it was a ticking time bomb already. PREPA was forced to seek companies to come in and rebuild the damaged infrastructure after a different storm, Hurricane Irma, dealt a striking blow to the island on Sept. 6. The company that got the contract was little-known Whitefish LLC, a two-man operation based in the middle of Montana. With no experience in disaster relief and no lineman staffed at the time, the move was puzzling, to say the very least.

It is less puzzling when you realize that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had personal local connections to the company, prompting multiple congressional investigations. Another problematic factor was the inordinate rates that went to contractor housing, and it exempted certain provisional scrutiny by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And, yet another issue was that the contract stated that FEMA reviewed and authorized the deal, which FEMA fervently denies.

Yes, a lot of the reason for the hiring of such cheap contract work stems from the fact that PREPA is already $9 billion in debt, and Whitefish was one of the few companies which did not charge a hefty down payment. This is another dilemma that should have been addressed long ago. It seems that the small island has suffered from a massive amount of neglect, and this is represented in their grid’s preemptive problems and the huge debt that PREPA has amassed.

Point is, our institutional leaders are asleep at the wheel right when its citizens need it most. And contracting out to cheap and unqualified businesses only prolongs the problem. It happened yet again in October. With millions of meals needing to be shipped out, the Trump administration and FEMA contracted Tiffany Brown, an entrepreneur, to conduct the mission. To call it a disaster would be an understatement.

After just 17 days of the contract being signed, FEMA contracting officer Carolyn Ward wrote in an email to Brown, “Do not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated. This is a logistical nightmare.” The contract was, as stated, terminated.

This was evidently due to the fact that in the time Brown was supposed to have shipped out 18.5 million meals, she had shipped out just 50,000. All this with the public knowledge, it turns out, that Brown has had five failed government contracts prior to this event. Talk about incompetence.

Puerto Ricans need a wholesale overthrow of their current systems to guard against such disasters. They need a totally redesigned and up-to-date electric/utility structure and they need massive amounts of money to rebuild the infrastructure of the Island. To do this, Puerto Rico has been seeking $94.4 billion in relief. To date, Congress has only slated $2 billion to restoring the power-grid and $9 billion toward restoration projects. This will help. But it is not enough at all.

It’s very simple. Just fixing up an archaic utility system on the cheap will only cost more money down the line when another disaster inevitably hits. Funding needs to be poured in to revamp these systems. Before the storm even hit, Puerto Rico had the worst water quality of any U.S. state or territory. Fully 70% of water customers already had unlawfully large amounts of contamination in their water. A preemptive addressing of these issues is what is needed.

Electric post being installed by Public Works Sub-Director Ramon Mendez, left, and other municipal workers. — NBC News

Congress needs to act, and fast, if they don’t want the death toll to rise, and it’s already above 1,000. We have the money. We all just watched billions upon billions upon billions of dollars go to the wealthiest oligarchs in the nation in the form of tax cuts. Hedge fund managers will be massively profiting from the 19.6% drop in the capital gains tax, high-income earners will be able to evade taxes through the repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax, and taxpayers in the 1% (making at least $730,000 a year) get 20% of the total cut in general. I think Congress can afford to pay for little children to have clean water and working electricity after their entire lives were upended by a brutal storm.

Remember, these are OUR citizens, too. U.S. citizens. A massive (ACTUALLY massive) stimulus package and funding of Puerto Rican utility systems and infrastructure would help to largely avoid this big of a crisis in the future.

They are American citizens after all. So, could that be the next step to, well, Make America Great Again?