President Trump recently deemed his Hurricane Maria response “incredibly successful,” “unprecedented” and an “unsung success.” Nearly 3,000 people died. This is how it happened.
It has been a year since Hurricane Maria wiped out Puerto Rico. If you drop onto the island for a visit, the recovery looks almost complete. The San Juan airport is crowded, the cruise ships are docking on schedule, and the piña coladas are flowing in Old San Juan. The lights work and your cellphone gets pretty good reception. If you ignore a few dead traffic signals and bent road signs, you might even be able to fool yourself into thinking nothing ever happened.
But Puerto Rico has not recovered. In fact, it’s arguably as close to collapse as it has ever been. The power is on and the roads are open, but if you look closely, the entire island is held together with duct tape and baling wire. Tens of thousands of people are still living under the blue tarps that were installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on houses that had their roofs blown off during the storm. Engineers are still discovering bridges that are in danger of collapsing, and every time it rains, new leaks are found in concrete foundations. Unlike, say, New York after Hurricane Sandy, there is no sense that the rebuilding is guaranteed, or that there is a better future ahead. Many Puerto Ricans I meet feel that with one more modest storm, it will all come tumbling down again. “The whole territory is suffering from PTSD,” Andrés W. López, a prominent San Juan lawyer and Democratic Party fundraiser, tells me.
The grief and pain erupt in surprising ways. In June, I was visiting the remote mountain town of Utuado, where power was still out in places and dozens of houses had tumbled down the mountainside, when I saw pictures on my Twitter feed of a spontaneous protest occurring that afternoon in front of the capitol building in San Juan. A few days earlier, a bombshell study conducted by Harvard University and published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine had suggested that the number of deaths that could be attributed to Hurricane Maria, which the Puerto Rican government officially estimated at 64, was more like 4,500. (In August, a new study by George Washington University, using a different methodology from Harvard, put the death toll at 2,975.) To honor and memorialize the uncounted dead, people from all over the territory were leaving empty shoes at the capitol.
In San Juan, the capitol sits on a stately bluff overlooking the Atlantic. By the time I arrived that evening, hundreds of pairs of shoes — running shoes, high heels, children’s sneakers — were lined up in rows in the public square between the capitol and the ocean. Many had notes attached, including this one beneath a new pair of loafers: “I bought you a new pair of shoes because you died barefoot. I adore you, daddy.” A small crowd walked among the shoes, their eyes blank with grief.
I talk with Juan Reus, 62, who had come to memorialize friends and family he lost in the storm: His father-in-law died in a nursing home that had lost power, another friend was burned to death in a gas explosion, a third died of leptospirosis, an infection caused by bacteria found in animal urine and spread through floodwaters. He tells me of a man whose father lay dead in his home for two days after the storm because the roads were so badly damaged they couldn’t get him to the morgue. In the mountains, he says, it was even worse: “Eventually, they had to bury [people] in their backyard.”
Reus looks over the sea of shoes and the ghosts of lost Puerto Ricans who seem to inhabit them. “Hurricane Maria,” he says, “hit us like an atomic bomb.”
He’s right. Maria may have been a force of nature, but the disaster itself was largely man-made. Hurricanes have been sweeping through Puerto Rico for thousands of years. This was a manufactured catastrophe, created by an explosive mix of politics, Wall Street corruption, poor planning and rising carbon pollution.
As the climate warms, our world is changing fast: Temperatures are rising, rainfall is getting more extreme, droughts are persisting and hurricanes are getting more intense. Craig McLean, assistant administrator of scientific research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, calls it “the new normal.” When extreme weather collides with -civilization, the results are deadly — and expensive. 2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters in the United States, which included drought, wildfires and six major hurricanes, with a total price tag of $312 billion.
Hurricane Maria was the third-costliest storm in U.S. history. It damaged or destroyed more than 300,000 homes, left 3 million people without power and caused about $100 billion in damage. The Puerto Rican government now accepts 2,975 as the official death toll, although that is still just a best estimate and could be revised up or down in the coming months. If that figure holds, it will make Maria the deadliest U.S. hurricane since 1900. It’s also powerful and tragic evidence that climate change will hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest.
Climate scientists have long warned that burning fossil fuels will heat up the planet and lead to bigger, wetter, more destructive hurricanes. It’s impossible to say exactly how much climate change contributed to Maria’s 155-mph winds, but it is possible to say pumping carbon into the atmosphere makes powerful storms like Maria more likely. Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT and one of the leading hurricane researchers in the world, predicts that Category 5 storms like Maria will go from a one-in-800-years event to a one-in-80-years event by the end of the century. “Climate change, if unimpeded, will greatly increase the probability of extreme events,” Emanuel said. “We’re going to be having Harveys, Irmas and Marias as far as the eye can see.” Some scientists are now suggesting that the five-category hurricane scale should include a Category 6.
Dependence on fossil fuels also contributed to the tragedy in a more direct way. Before the storm, 98 percent of the power on the island was generated by fossil fuels — dirty and inefficient diesel fuel as well as coal and natural gas, all of which have to be imported (Puerto Rico has no reserves of its own). The oil, coal and gas were burned in a handful of decrepit power plants and pushed out over a rickety transmission grid that hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. When Maria hit, the grid collapsed. Three months after the storm, 1.5 million people were still without power. It took nearly a year for electricity to be restored on the island, making it the second-largest blackout in history. It contributed to thousands of deaths because of everything from failed air-conditioning systems to hospitals that couldn’t power dialysis machines.
There were, of course, other factors that contributed to the catastrophe in Puerto Rico. The most obvious one was poverty.
The Puerto Rican economy had stopped growing in 2005 and entered a “lost decade” of negative GDP growth. The poverty rate on the island was a staggering 43.5 percent (more than three times the rate for the overall U.S.); more than 10 percent of the workforce was unemployed. Not surprisingly, the population of the island was in rapid decline, falling by more than 10 percent during the decade before Maria. Oh, and the Puerto Rican government was $70 billion in debt. The territory’s finances were in such disarray, in fact, that in 2016 Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, known as PROMESA, which established a seven-member Financial Oversight and Management Board. The board is essentially charged with working with the government to turn the economy around and balance the budget. It is known to many Puerto Ricans as “La Junta,” and they feel it has basically unmasked a return to colonial rule. (Quick civics lesson: Since 1917, Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States. Puerto Ricans who live on the island are American citizens but do not have a voting representative in Congress and cannot vote in federal elections. They don’t pay federal income tax, but they do pay the same Medicare and Social Security taxes as people on the mainland.)
The tragedy was also compounded by a slow, weak and disorganized response by FEMA, which left many people without food, water and decent shelter for months. Two weeks after the storm, President Trump visited for less than five hours, threw a few rolls of paper towels to a crowd and provoked a Twitter fight with the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz (after Trump called her “nasty,” she went on TV proudly wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word and said, “What’s nasty is showing your back to the Puerto Rican people”). And even now, after the true scale of the catastrophe is clear, Trump remains tone-deaf to the suffering of the people in Puerto Rico, recently claiming his administration’s response “was an incredible, unsung success” despite the fact that nearly 3,000 Americans were killed.
It would be easy to dismiss the death and destruction in Puerto Rico as a freak event, a sorry collision of politics, economics and Mother Nature. In fact, what happened in Puerto Rico was a powerful warning that preparing for life in the new normal is about a lot more than updating building codes and convening blue-ribbon commissions to study sea-level rise and extreme-rain events. The story of rebuilding Puerto Rico demonstrates that virtually no aspect of our current way of life, including our legal and financial systems, is ready for what’s coming our way.
When Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló arrives in Aspen, Colorado, in June, he looks like he has just come from a funeral. He wears a dark suit, polished black dress shoes, and is surrounded by a hive of similarly dark-suited aides and handlers. Only after he sits down do I notice his socks have cartoon images of Albert Einstein on them — a subtle reminder of his former life as a neurobiology researcher. “I used to be a scientist — then I took a wrong turn somewhere,” he likes to say.
If there is any place in the world that is less like Puerto Rico, it may be Aspen. It’s an old hippie town that has been consumed by big mountains, big houses and big money. One of the highlights of the summer is the Aspen Ideas Festival, which attracts a mix of the smart, the provocative and the rich who gather to debate the most pressing issues of the day, as well as to drink whiskey at the Hotel Jerome bar and do early-morning yoga.
It might not be fair to say that Rosselló had come to the festival to beg for money, but it wouldn’t exactly be wrong, either. Puerto Rico is bankrupt, and before it can have microgrids and innovation hubs and all the other wondrous things the governor likes to talk about, it needs to have a thriving economy. Puerto Rico is due to get $50 billion or more in disaster-relief funds to help rebuild what has been broken, but those funds will dribble in over the next five to 10 years and will, at best, get Puerto Rico back to where it was before the storm. If the island is truly going to recover, Rosselló has to convince people — especially people with money — that Puerto Rico is a good place to do business.
Rosselló, 39, is part of the Puerto Rican elite, the son of Pedro Rosselló, governor from 1993 to 2001. He was a geeky but athletic kid who represented Puerto Rico in the International Mathematical Olympiad and was a three-time junior tennis champion on the island. He studied chemical engineering at MIT and earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan. He co-founded a company called Beijing Prosperous Biopharm that developed drugs to fight cancer, diabetes and HIV. “I planned to save the world,” he tells me.
In 2012, Rosselló decided he wanted to save Puerto Rico instead. After returning to San Juan, he started a group to advocate for statehood, but ended up running for governor. He had plenty of political connections, but it didn’t help that his father’s administration is widely viewed as one of the most corrupt in Puerto Rican history. (Víctor Fajardo, Puerto Rico’s -education secretary under Pedro -Rosselló, pleaded guilty to participation in a $4.3 million extortion scheme.)
But “Ricky,” as his friends call him, convinced voters he was a new generation of politician, driven more by data and facts than family ties and cronyism. From the beginning, he’s been outspoken about the threat of climate change. He joined California Gov. Jerry Brown and other progressive governors in condemning Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. “Climate change is a real problem for all and requires immediate action to ensure future generations are left with a sustainable planet,” Rosselló said in a statement less than four months before Maria hit.
In Aspen, Rosselló participates in a discussion titled “Lessons From Natural Disasters.” During a 30-minute talk, he introduces what he calls his blank-canvas approach to rebuilding Puerto Rico. It is an appealing concept for a place that’s riddled with corruption, decay and bureaucracy. At one point, he pulls a piece of white paper out of his pocket, unfolds it and shows it to the audience. “This is my blank canvas for Puerto Rico,” he says. The paper looks like the doodlings of a child, with green arrows and triangles and lists written in different-color ink with headings like “Energy 2.0” and “World-Class Education for All.” He talks about “capacity building” and “transparency” and about Puerto Rico being “open for business.” It is all very dreamy and inspiring, as long as you don’t think too hard about where the money will come from. Or, for that matter, about the real elephant in the room: Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt.
Once upon a time, Puerto Rico’s economic future seemed bright. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the economy was booming. Drug companies, attracted by a loophole that basically allowed businesses to operate tax-free, rushed to open manufacturing plants on the island (for years, the coastal town of Barceloneta, where Pfizer’s Viagra plant was located, was known as Ciudad Viagra).
The island’s economic destiny changed in 1996. Pressured by House Republicans to cut the deficit, President Clinton phased out the tax loophole over the next decade. The pharmaceutical companies fled. The economy tanked. Tax revenues collapsed. In May 2006, much of the government, including all the public schools, was temporarily shut down. But rather than cut spending to make up for lost tax revenue, the Puerto Rican government went the other way. It started borrowing money. Two years later, when the global financial crisis hit, it borrowed even more. Broke and desperate, it turned to high-risk capital appreciation bonds and other financial instruments with astronomical interest rates. A 2016 report on Puerto Rico’s debt describes these loans as “the municipal version of a payday loan.” Instead of jump-starting the economy, it pushed the island deeper into joblessness, recession and bankruptcy. In 2015, then-Gov. Alejandro García Padilla warned that the debt was “not payable.”
That didn’t stop Wall Street from lending Puerto Rico money, however. From as early as 2005, there were signs the government wasn’t going to be able to repay the loans. But the banks didn’t care: They made money on bond transaction fees, and the high interest rate on these bonds pumped up their balance sheets. The politicians didn’t care either; they just wanted to keep the money flowing. Also, because Puerto Rico is not covered by U.S. bankruptcy laws, many banks and hedge funds assumed that if worse came to worst, they could take the commonwealth to court and get their money. They all knew about what Paul Singer, the notorious founder of Elliott Management, whom Bloomberg called “the World’s Most Feared Investor,” had done in Argentina. After buying up $600 million in bonds at a steep discount, the hedge fund launched into a 15-year legal battle during which it tried to seize, among other things, an Argentinian naval ship as collateral for unpaid debts. Elliott eventually won a court settlement for $2.4 billion.
When Congress stepped in with “La Junta,” however, that fantasy ended. The laws governing the financial oversight board basically made it impossible for Wall Street firms and other creditors to simply seek payment for their debt in court. It was up to the board to decide which bills Puerto Rico should pay. “The hard left sees the board as nothing but tools of oppressive banking and political interests determined to balance the budget on the backs of workers and the poor, which it is,” says Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, who follows Puerto Rico’s budget negotiations closely. “At the same time, board proponents see it as a new forum that can be used to resolve fiscal problems and set a new responsible course — and it’s that too.”
A consequence of this decade-long financial decline was little investment in infrastructure — the roads, highways, bridges, water and sewage systems, and electric grid were all more or less abandoned. There was no money for building inspectors to make sure houses were built to code (in fact, there were only a handful of inspectors on the entire island) and no funds to stockpile medication in rural areas, much less to build, say, a new hospital for Vieques, a municipal island of 9,000 people with woefully inadequate health care. “Even before the storm, Puerto Rico was headed for a humanitarian disaster,” says López, the San Juan lawyer. “That was obvious to anyone who cared to look. When Maria came along, it blew back the curtain to expose it all.”
Now, post-Maria, the central question the Financial Oversight and Management Board faces is this: What’s higher priority, paying back the hedge funds or building schools? “Wall Street wants them to cut services, schools, infrastructure,” says Sanzillo. “If you do that, the system goes into a tailspin. It simply doesn’t work. The only way forward is to cancel the debt, invest in the economy, and rebuild roads and infrastructure.” Not long after the storm, a group of economists, including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, basically agreed, publishing an open letter suggesting that Puerto Rico’s debt should be largely erased so that the commonwealth can focus on rebuilding. In July, a group of senators, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, all of whom are likely presidential contenders in 2020 and thus have reason to woo Puerto -Ricans who live on the U.S. mainland (and are therefore eligible to vote in federal elections), introduced a bill that would essentially wipe out the commonwealth’s debt. But as long as Trump Republicans are in charge, the bill will go nowhere.
Rosselló himself has gone from Wall Street friend to foe. During his 2016 campaign, he argued that paying back the debt was important to Puerto Rico’s future creditworthiness. In fact, Rosselló was so friendly to Wall Street that he was pegged as “the bondholders’ candidate.”
After he took office, that changed. He started calling Puerto Rico’s debt fiasco “a big Ponzi scheme.” In April, after Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican who helped establish the financial oversight board, suggested that Puerto Rico should listen to financial creditors about how to stabilize finances and accept labor reforms and drastic cuts to pensions, Rosselló fired back a blistering letter: “I cannot and will not permit you to elevate concerns of bondholders on the mainland above concern for the well-being of my constituents.” In July, he basically declared open war on the oversight board, filing a lawsuit against it that challenged its authority to make budgetary decisions.
If the Puerto Rican government can’t get a break from debt payments, there is little chance Rosselló can make the kind of investments necessary to attract new businesses and keep the economy going — let alone rebuild. And if the economy spins further down, tax revenues will crash, giving the island less and less money. More people will leave Puerto Rico for the mainland, further depleting the tax base. This is how capitalism becomes an engine of destruction, not rebirth.
After his talk, I ask Rosselló if he believes Puerto Rico’s recovery is being held hostage by Wall Street greed. “That’s one way of looking at it,” he says bluntly. “But right now, I’m just trying to get the economy moving again.”
When Hurricane Maria hit, Pedro Sáez tried to protect himself by climbing under the bed. But the bed was too low, so he could only get his feet and legs under it. Sáez, who is 56, a stooped, sickly man with most of his front teeth missing, lives in a small house in Vieques, where Maria first made landfall. It’s six months after the storm, but you can still see the damage caused by Maria: Part of Sáez’s roof is covered in a blue tarp, and there is a soggy, rotting mattress sitting near the front porch. As I look at his little bed, I try to imagine his terror as he tried to hide under it, the 155-mph wind blowing outside.
“I survived,” he tells me. His mother, Ana, wanders by in a faded white dress. She has a distant gaze in her eyes and does not look at me.
“I’m trying to fix up the house now,” he says. He says he got a few thousand dollars from FEMA, which is more than many people I’ve talked to but nowhere near enough. He turns away for a few minutes to talk with a volunteer from ViequesLove, a nonprofit that’s helping people like Sáez rebuild their lives. The volunteer, Brittany Bresha, is trying to persuade Sáez to let her take him to a dentist to get his teeth fixed.
When he turns back to me, I ask him what he’s going to fix up first on the house. I expect him to say the roof. Instead, he says, “I want solar panels.”
“Why solar panels?”
He looks at me like I’m nuts. “So I can have electricity whenever I want it!”
In Puerto Rico, there are now millions of people who think like Sáez. If the hurricane taught them one thing, it’s that electricity is just as important as, perhaps more important than, food and water. And rather than depend on a corrupt, expensive electric-power utility like the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to deliver it to them, they want to produce it themselves. In a place like Puerto Rico, creating your own power is a radical political act, a way of thumbing your nose at the government that has long abused you with high prices and crappy service.
In fact, if there is one place where Rosselló’s “blank canvas” has some traction, it’s in rebuilding the island’s power system. Everyone agrees the old system was ancient, inefficient and expensive. Now that it’s been destroyed, why not build something stronger, cleaner and cheaper? For Rosselló’s economic development plans, not to mention the comfort and safety of the people on the island, nothing is more important than a reliable, affordable power supply. And there are dozens of renewable-energy companies, from Tesla to SunPower, that are eager to get started. “For anyone in the solar industry, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Ron Leonard, a longtime solar entrepreneur. “You have billions of dollars of investment that is just waiting to flow onto the island.”
But it is not flowing, and there are two main reasons for that. The first is the Stafford Act, 1988 legislation that requires all infrastructure funded with FEMA money to be rebuilt more or less as it had been before the storm. That means if an inefficient, old oil-burning power station is destroyed in a storm and you want to use FEMA funds to rebuild it, you have to build another oil burner.
The second is a fundamental mistrust of PREPA, a government-run monopoly that sells electricity at twice the price of power companies on the mainland yet still managed to fall $9 billion in debt. You say “PREPA” to most Puerto Ricans and they recoil in horror. They tell you stories about power outages and sky-high bills that threaten to bankrupt them (I met a number of Puerto Ricans who pay more for electric power than they do for rent). They tell you about the latest fuel-oil scam and how PREPA executives are making millions by purchasing low-grade oil at a discount, billing customers for high-grade oil and pocketing the difference. “We spend $8 million on fossil fuels every day,” said Lionel Orama-Exclusa, an energy expert at the University of Puerto Rico.
In recent years, PREPA has spent between $2 billion and $3 billion on fossil fuels annually. “That money goes out of -Puerto Rico, out of our economy,” said Orama-Exclusa. “If we develop renewables, those monies will stay in the island.”
Puerto Rico, of course, is a potential paradise for renewable energy — wind, solar, water (hydropower) and biomass. “It’s not that we can go 100 percent, we can even go 200 percent [renewable],” Orama-Exclusa said. A report has estimated that truly making Puerto Rico’s grid hurricane-ready — including rerouting transmission lines off mountaintops, hardening substations and towers, and moving to a more decentralized grid powered by more renewable energy — would cost $17.6 billion and take a decade.
After the storm, Rosselló announced that the best way to fix PREPA was to privatize it, selling off the power plants while retaining control of the transmission grid. While this might sound like a decent way to attract some much-needed capital, the old power plants are essentially worthless. “Their value is the value of the real estate they sit on,” says David Crane, former CEO of NRG Energy. Even more troubling is the fact that PREPA is one of the largest employers on the island, with 6,000 workers, many of whom allegedly got their jobs not because they’re grid wizards but because they are related to local politicians.
The best solution, of course, would be to just abandon the wreckage of PREPA. As Lynn Jurich, the CEO of Sunrun, a major residential solar company, puts it, “If you are going to start over, why not do it right?”
As it stands, most solar entrepreneurs are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for PREPA to unravel. And it’s happening fast. (The company has been through four CEOs since Maria.) A few solar companies are now starting to take cautious steps into the market. In June, Sunrun announced it would begin offering a solar-rooftop-and-battery package in Puerto Rico. Instead of charging for the solar panels and batteries upfront, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Sunrun basically leases the technology to homeowners under a 25-year service agreement that includes installation, maintenance and insurance.
Jurich says she thinks they’ll be successful no matter what happens to PREPA: “The costs for rooftop solar are more or less on parity with what customers in Puerto Rico are paying for dirty power today.”
Jurich foresees the day when neighborhoods of 200 houses or so band together to create microgrids that can share power and feed it onto the larger grid, creating what she calls “a virtual power plant.” Other solar companies have similar plans, using batteries and solar or wind to create reliable, stable sources of power on the island. “PREPA can speed up the revolution, or it can slow it down, but in the long run, it can’t stop it,” one energy expert tells me. “It’s a triumph of technology over politics.”
Right now, solar panels are beginning to appear on fire stations and hospitals around Puerto Rico, as well as on the second homes of rich mainlanders in places like Dorado and Rincón. Most people, however, are stuck with the crappy old PREPA system. For Sáez and millions of Puerto Ricans like him, the dream of a solar paradise, powerful as it may be, is still in the distance.
In the hills around Utuado, most of the houses are abandoned. Some have tumbled down the mountainside, leaving just a concrete foundation behind, like a footprint of the lives that were once lived there. Abandoned dogs wander the dirt roads, and horses are starving behind locked gates. The roads are empty. The only people I see as I drive around the region with Antonio Paris, an astrophysicist who grew up in Utuado but now lives in Tampa, Florida, are some lonely-looking men fishing off the dam at Lago Dos Bocas. “Before the storm, this place was thriving,” Paris says. He returned a number of times in the immediate aftermath of the storm. He set up a GoFundMe campaign to help finance his relief efforts, which included distributing hundreds of solar flashlights, radios and water filters to Utuado residents. But now, 10 months after the storm, most of the people he helped are gone. He estimates that 90 percent of the homes in the area are deserted. “These people will never return,” Paris says. He watches a vulture land on a dead snake in the road. “Instead, I think nature is coming back and will reclaim this place.”
The scale of the housing crisis after Maria is still visible as you fly into San Juan and see the ocean of blue tarps from the air. Hurricane Maria destroyed at least 70,000 homes and damaged another 300,000. There are no hard numbers on how many of those have been repaired, but anyone who spends a few hours outside San Juan can see that many homes are still in bad shape. Roofs are gone, windows are missing, foundations are tilted. Many of them will never be rebuilt because they were “informal” — that is, illegal, built without the proper title or permits — and thus did not qualify for FEMA funding. As much as half the housing in Puerto Rico fits into this category, and one of the laudable goals of the rebuilding effort is to shift people into better-built, legally sound housing.
To help with this, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded Puerto Rico $18.5 billion in housing grants. Ricardo Alvarez-Díaz, a prominent Puerto Rican architect, estimates that 70,000 new homes will be built in Puerto Rico over the next few years. “The challenge,” says Alvarez-Díaz, sitting in a San Juan cafe late one night, “will be designing this new housing so that it strengthens communities rather than destroys them.” He mentions the shoe memorial at the capitol, which had moved him deeply. “If we do this right, it’s a way of respect for the dead. A way of showing their death is not meaningless.”
I mention my visit to Utuado and all the empty homes there. “You are going to see a big shift in where people live,” he predicts. “Certain remote areas like that — well, they’re not going to be rebuilt. You’re going to see more people moving into the cities, where a whole new generation of housing is going to be built.”
Alvarez-Díaz invites me to an open house the next day for a new development called the Bayshore Villas, located near the water in an industrial area of San Juan, which he says is representative of the kind of housing he hopes to see in Puerto Rico in coming years. When I arrive the following day, I discover that the villas look a lot like a middle-class condo development you might find in Atlanta or Phoenix: 174 units in a dozen separate buildings with courtyards, small balconies and commercial space. Its buildings are all made of concrete, designed to withstand even the most brutal storms. But what’s really new, Alvarez-Díaz had explained the night before, is that the development was built through a public-private partnership, allowing about 80 percent of the units to be devoted to government-subsidized housing, while the rest are rented at market rate, which ranges from $800 for a three-bedroom apartment to $370 for a one-bedroom.
In a world with so much wreckage and despair, even a new condo development can be cause for celebration. That morning, dignitaries like Fernando Gil Enseñat, Puerto Rico’s secretary of housing, gathered in a courtyard to mark the occasion. (Gov. Rosselló was supposed to be there too, but he canceled at the last minute.) I wandered into one of the model units to have a look, and it felt like I was stepping into a Pottery Barn showroom. It -reminded me of the Home Depots and Best Buys that I had seen driving over that morning, islands of middle-class aspiration in the new Puerto Rico. If you have a good job, you can live in a storm-proof concrete apartment by the water and not worry too much about what Mother Nature might throw your way.
But what if you don’t have a good job? What if you’re one of the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans whose house was blown down in the storm and who doesn’t have the money to fix it? What if you believe, as many Puerto Ricans do, that the game is rigged against you, that you will never be given the full rights of U.S. citizenship? What if living in a Pottery Barn catalog is not your idea of the good life?
This year, the annual May Day parade in San Juan began peacefully enough. People marched down Ponce de León Avenue, known as the Golden Mile, through the heart of the island’s financial district, carrying signs of protest against health care cuts and tuition increases. Some wore T-shirts or carried placards painted with black Puerto Rican flags, a symbol of resistance. Near the end of the march, protesters clashed with police in riot gear. Chaos erupted. Protesters threw rocks, and the police launched tear-gas canisters into the crowd. After a few minutes of scuffling, people dispersed. But as Carlos Cofiño, a 20-year-old college student at the University of Puerto Rico who was there to protest tuition increases, told a journalist covering the march, “We’re on a downward spiral.”
Among the faces in the crowd that day was Oscar Lopez Rivera, who laid low and kept his distance from the police. Rivera is one of the most controversial figures on the island — he is seen by some as the Nelson Mandela of Puerto Rico, a man who has suffered years of political persecution as a result of his belief in justice and independence for Puerto Rico. To others, he is nothing more than “a fucking terrorist,” as one prominent Puerto Rican described him to me, a man who has killed innocent people in pursuit of his own political ideology.
What no one disputes is that in the 1970s Rivera was one of the leaders of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación -Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN), a clandestine paramilitary organization devoted to Puerto Rican independence that carried out more than 130 bomb attacks in the U.S. and -Puerto Rico between 1974 and 1983. The most deadly attack occurred on January 24th, 1975, when a duffel bag stuffed with sticks of dynamite exploded in Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan, killing four people. Rivera spent five years on the run, then was finally arrested in 1981 and tried and convicted of seditious conspiracy, interstate transportation of firearms with the intent to commit violent crimes, and transportation of explosives with intent to kill and injure people and destroy government property. He was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison. In 2017, President Obama commuted his sentence and Rivera was released. By that time, he had spent 35 years in prison, including 12 years in solitary confinement.
Today, Rivera doesn’t look much like an ex-con. He lives in a 1950s-style apartment complex in an anony-mous neighborhood of San Juan and spends most of his day in a small office near the university that is decorated with a Puerto Rican flag and a small black-and-white photo of Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela standing together. When I meet him, I am struck by how small and slight he is. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and orange Nikes, he looks more like a retired mailman than a notorious terrorist. He has gray hair and a gray mustache, and his voice is smooth and quiet. But there’s a fierceness in how he talks about things, especially Puerto Rican history and the long legacy of colonialism. “Puerto Ricans have been exploited by the United States for more than 100 years,” he says bluntly. “What’s happened since Hurricane Maria is just more of the same. You talk about rebuilding? There is no rebuilding. At least, not for most Puerto Ricans.”
Rivera goes on from there. He believes that the Puerto Rican government is not really a government at all, but an extension of U.S. rule. He believes that the result of this will be to depopulate the island, push out the poor people and make it a paradise for yacht owners and blockchain billionaires. “We need to invest in the poor communities, in the poorest of the poor, and educate them about what is going on,” he tells me. “And we need to start asking some fundamental questions about how we live. Can we accept climate change? Can we accept a world powered by coal and oil and the Koch brothers? Is that the kind of world we want to live in?”
For Rivera, these questions all lead in the same direction: toward Puerto Rican independence from the U.S. It is not a view that many share, at least not right now. It’s achieving statehood, not independence, that inspires most people on the island, including Rosselló, who made it an explicit goal of his 2016 campaign. “I think that it is the right time for the U.S. to eradicate this notion of second-class citizenship, which is a real problem for American
democracy,” Rosselló told me.
It is hard to imagine Puerto Ricans rising up en masse and marching in the streets when it’s so much easier and more practical to express your disgust with the way the island is being run by moving to Orlando. After Maria, more than 300,000 people left Puerto Rico for Florida, accelerating a decline in the island’s population that began with the economic crisis more than a decade ago and that will undoubtedly continue until the economy revives.
Rivera, however, hopes to inspire Puerto Ricans to stick around and fight.
“I have something I want to show you,” he says. I follow him into another room. He opens a long, narrow case and takes out a sword. It has elaborate engravings on the handle and blade. “This is a replica of Símon Bolívar’s sword,” he tells me. Bolívar was a 19th-century military leader and politician who is revered as El Liberator for freeing much of South America from Spanish rule. I ask him if he is angry about what has happened to Puerto Rico. “I’m not angry, I want changes,” he says. He holds up the sword, and I see a flash of the old revolutionary in him. “Anything I can do to make the world a more just place, I will do.”
But as Rivera knows as well as anyone, one year after the storm, Puerto Rico remains an island lost at sea. The economy will be pumped up by billions of dollars in recovery funds over the next few years, but after that? The path to statehood is likely to be long and steep. You can spin out various possible futures for the island: In one version, disaster capitalists and bitcoin entrepreneurs arrive in their yachts and private jets, turning Puerto Rico into a crypto St. Barts; in another, post-capitalists build a paradise powered by solar microgrids, community gardens and the rebirth of local fisheries; in a third, the territory falls into a dystopian ruin, where everyone with brains and ambition has fled to the mainland, leaving behind an aging, unhealthy population in slow but inexorable decline. But one thing that’s clear is that in the age of accelerating climate change, what’s most vulnerable is not ice sheets and coral reefs. It’s our human-built world. As Puerto Rico demonstrates, one big storm can blow the whole thing down.
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