America's contemptible failure in Puerto Rico

This is a national disgrace

A woman in Puerto Rico.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Alvin Baez)

It is now beyond question that the humanitarian crisis that took place after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is among the worst in American history. A study released last week calculated that about 4,600 people died due to increased mortality rates after the storm — or more than 70 times the original estimate. This would make Hurricane Maria's the second-worst fatality count from a natural disaster in American history — worse than Hurricane Katrina, and behind only 1900's Hurricane Galveston.

Unlike in previous disasters, Maria's death toll is almost entirely manmade. Only a tiny minority of the dead were killed by the storm itself; the rest died as a result of the incompetent and underfunded rescue and reconstruction efforts. By far the bulk of the blame must land on President Trump and the Republican Party, but a lesser share must also go to Barack Obama for setting the stage for the disaster.

Let us briefly recall what has happened over the last few years in Puerto Rico. The island territory has long been economically out of step with the mainland, with much lower wages and aging, decrepit infrastructure — especially its power system, which relies on expensive imported oil. Puerto Rico has been in a serious economic crisis for over a decade now, stuck in a complicated debt crisis that bears marked similarity to what has happened to Greece. Puerto Rico unwisely took on a bunch of debt that was loaned even more unwisely (always remember: every bad loan has two parents). When the broader crisis of 2008 hit, Puerto Rico was stuck with extreme unemployment and a totally unpayable debt burden.

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The solution for such a situation is very obvious: Declare bankruptcy, write the debt down to a payable level, and put in an economic stimulus package to restore full employment and tax revenues. (Ideally, this would be combined with an investment program to catch the island up with the rest of America.) Instead, President Obama and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan teamed up with a bunch of Wall Street goons to place Puerto Rico under a dictatorship of unelected financial technocrats. They demanded debt repayment in full, and gigantic austerity to get it. The result was a worsened economic crisis: more unemployment, heavy emigration, and even more unpayable debt. Austerity in the face of a debt crisis is like quitting your job because you can't make your mortgage payment.

Then last fall, Hurricane Maria struck, and turned a debt crisis into a major humanitarian catastrophe. Because of the years of previous economic crisis, the island's government was unable to either prepare or respond sensibly. Buildings and infrastructure across the island were obliterated. Power was out everywhere, and there were quickly shortages of water, food, and medical supplies.

The response from the Republican Congress and President Trump was apathetic and inept. Far from seizing the opportunity to right previous wrongs, they had neither prepared adequately for the storm, nor did they mount an aggressive response. On the contrary, they dawdled, remained focused on the hurricane damage on the mainland, and handed out corrupt reconstruction contracts to friends of the administration. And as Danny Vinik later discovered, federal emergency spending dedicated to Texas and Florida was far greater than that of Puerto Rico, despite the damage being far worse there.

The result was thousands of people dying. They died from being hit by trees, from lack of medicine or other medical treatment, from hospitals running out of fuel, from tainted water, or other similar causes.

Compare that to the worst natural disaster in American history, the 1900 hurricane which killed perhaps 8,000 people in Galveston, an island off the coast of Texas. Those deaths were almost entirely due to the storm itself, which produced a sea level surge that submerged the island, drowning thousands in a matter of hours and crushing thousands more in the wreckage. The response was immediate and vigorous, with relief supplies coming in from all over the country. One might fault a lack of preparation (in particular, more accurate Cuban forecasts were ignored for stupid reasons), but such technology was still being developed, and the federal government of those days was rather feeble.

There is no such excuse for the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico. We know how to prepare for and rebuild from such storms, and have done so for decades. Quite simply, several thousand American citizens died because America's leaders didn't care enough to help them.

Hurricane season is beginning anew right now, and forecasters are suggesting that it might be another bad one. I fear the only thing to do is hope Puerto Rico isn't hit again.

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