Puerto Rico faces its most difficult time

    The cash-strapped U.S. territory has come to a halt due the great devastation caused by hurricane Maria

    Puerto Rico, the only Spanish-speaking U.S. territory and one of the most advanced economies in Latin America, has basically come to a halt after hurricane Maria left the entire island without power, destroyed thousands of homes in all of its 78 municipalities and debris blocked major roads and highways.

    After devastating Dominica and smashing the U.S. Virgin Islands, Maria showed its most destructive force over the bankrupt territory early on Wednesday, and it did so in such a way that 24 hours after the catastrophic event, all but one of the key news radio stations (WAPA 680AM Radio) and three local television stations, including government owned WIPR, had been taken off the air.

    Most of the 3.2 million people living on the island are also without tap water and don’t have any way to communicate with relatives since telecommunications networks, internet and cable television services are down across the entire island. Even the Puerto Rico Police Department lost its radio communication system, making it difficult for law enforcement officers to rapidly respond to help requests from citizens. The National Weather Service (NWS) radar in Puerto Rico was also destroyed.

    About 46% of the island’s population are below the poverty threshold.

    Banks, manufacturing companies, shopping centers, universities and schools were closed on Wednesday with no idea of when such activities might resume. Some looters in the metro area took advantage of businesses wrecked by the storm.

    In the meantime, first responders, emergency workers and citizens across the entire island were out in roads, streets and avenues attempting to remove debris as quickly as possible and assist those in need.

    Roads and communities were so battered by Maria that on Wednesday, Governor Ricardo Rosselló issued a historic a three-day curfew order, warning citizens that those who do not comply might be arrested. Citizens are not allowed on the streets between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. until Saturday, September 23. Stores are not allowed to sell alcoholic beverages either.

    At of this writing, it is being reported that three people died in the municipality of Utuado.

    “I haven’t been able to communicate with my parents”

    On Thursday morning, governor Rosselló arrived at WAPA Radio and urged citizens to remain calm while revealing that even he hasn’t been able to communicate with his parents.

    “I know these are difficult times, but we want people to know that the government has not stopped”, said Rosselló.

    El Nuevo Día learned that several electric towers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), the island’s sole electric utility, were knocked down by Maria.

    Rosselló said that “basically, a 100% of the electric grid is down” and explained that while restoring electricity, water and telecommunications is a priority, other key tasks in the recovery process include clearing roads and setting upan emergency medical response center to be located at Centro Médico, Puerto Rico’s trauma and tertiary hospital. After María, many health facilities throughout the island were severely damaged by the hurricane or are experiencing problems to take care of their patients, so the government logistics effort would make possible for those with the worst conditions to be transferred to a better facility.

    “The people are our priority”, said Rosselló, adding that all citizens, from the poorest to the wealthiest, were on the same boat after suffering “massive loses” due to María.

    Rosselló said that even though María caused great devastation across the island, he was confident that, as it has happened with other disasters, Puerto Ricans’ generosity would be essential to the island’s recovery.

    A major hurricane amidst a fiscal crisis

    Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico at a time of great financial difficulty for the U.S territory and its residents. Puerto Rico’s cash-strapped government defaulted last year after issuing nearly $74 billion in public debt and has run billion dollar-gap deficits for over 15 years.

    Last year, Congress enacted PROMESA, aiming at restoring Puerto Rico’s fiscal discipline through a set of tools: a court-supervised debt restructuring, an infrastructure czar to ensure a fast-track permits process for infrastructure projects and a control board that is required to oversee the closing of a $7.3 billion budget gap.

    Years of poor fiscal management even resulted in the failure to appropriate monies to the Puerto Rico’s Emergency Fund despite there being a law on the matter. El Nuevo Día previously reported that said fund only has about $34 million. This would make Puerto Rico’s own safety financial net to deal with a major disaster such as María only drop in a bucket, and just last week, it was reported that hurricane Irma left between $600 million and $1 billion in losses.

    Puerto Rico’s recovery would greatly depend on how much relief its government could get from the federal government. President Donald Trump issued a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which was already assisting U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and U.S the Virgin Islands, promised additional help.

    María’s destructive power over Puerto Rico might dwindle that of the Board’s, at least in the short term.

    On Thursday evening, the Fiscal Oversight Board, a federal entity that many have criticized for ordering a furlough program as a cash-saving measure, approved a request from Rosselló to amend the government’s current budget. The Board allowed Rosselló to reprogram up to $1 billion of the current budget for recovery efforts. Additional budget modifications might be approved down the line, said a letter issued by the board’s chairman, José B. Carrión.

    “Our thoughts and prayers are with you and with the people of Puerto Rico during this difficult time”, wrote Carrión”. “Given the gravity of the situation, the Oversight Board understands that more flexibility is needed to respond to the devastating effects of hurricane María”.

    By: Joanisabel González – El Nuevo Dia