Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello is a man at the center of the storm — several of them, in fact. First there was Hurricane Maria, which slammed into the island a year ago today. At the time, Rossello had been in office less than a year. He thought his most important job was going to be convincing his fellow Americans to accept the territory as the 51st state. Instead, Rossello found himself at the center of catastrophic destruction, as well as dealing with a catastrophically inept U.S. president.
Despite the fact that President Trump waited 13 days to visit the storm-ravaged island, only stayed a few hours, and tossed rolls of paper towels at suffering Puerto Ricans, Rossello understood that trashing the president wouldn’t help the relief effort. In fact, Rossello actually praised Trump effusively after the hurricane — and Trump returned the favor, calling Rossello “a great guy and leader who is working really hard.” (Trump saved his vitriol for San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who had lambasted the poor federal response to the hurricane.) As one Puerto Rican who is close to the governor put it to me, “Rossello hates Trump, but he is smart enough to know that flattery is what’s going to keep the billions of dollars in federal aid flowing to the island.”
The dynamic between Trump and Rossello changed, however, after a recent study by George Washington University prompted Rossello to revise the official death toll from Maria from 64 people to 2,975. Trump tweeted that “3,000 people did not die” and that the newly revised death count was “done by the Democrats to make me look as bad as possible.” Like all of Trump’s conspiracy theories, this one is insane. Rossello isn’t even a Democrat — he’s a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. And by increasing the official death toll, he is not just making Trump look bad — he is making himself look bad, too, not only for his role in the mismanagement of the hurricane response but for initially releasing such unrealistically low fatality figures. So far, Rossello’s push-back to Trump has been cool but forceful: “The victims and the people of Puerto Rico should not have their pain questioned.”
As a politician, Rossello, 39, is as un-Trump-like as they come. He trained as a scientist (he has a Ph.D in biomedical engineering from the University of Michigan) and speaks in a way that suggests logic and rationality are the highest virtues. He understands cellular reproduction much better than he understands the media: On TV, he is often stiff and overeager, looking like an A student called upon to recite his homework. But he is also a person who has kept his head in the face of extreme weather, both natural and political. And when it comes to science-related subjects like climate change, he’s strikingly articulate and well-informed.
I spoke with Rossello a few weeks ago, just before the latest controversy about the death toll broke out, while I was wrapping up reporting a big story about Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
How has Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt impacted recovery from Hurricane Maria?
Well, there are two answers to that question. From a pragmatic standpoint, no funds from the recovery should be anywhere near anything else, especially the debt issue.
Now, within the budget, I ran on a platform that we have to make some changes in Puerto Rico. The fiscal responsibility and transparency of the budget was awful or nonexistent prior to our administration.
To save money, we have focused our cuts not on services, but rather on reducing the size of government. As soon as I came in, I put in an executive order to reduce 10 percent of the current year’s budget. I put another executive order to slash political-appointment spending by 20 percent, and we’ve actually gone above that.
The real problem with the Financial Oversight Board [appointed by Congress in 2016 to oversee the island’s debt and spending] is not necessarily the fact that we have to make changes, but rather certain policy measures [such as school closings] that the board doesn’t have the power to implement but want to thrust upon us anyway. That’s where the conflict lies.
One of the biggest problems in the recovery was the electric grid, which is old and fragile and powered by fossil fuels. What do think the power system in Puerto Rico is going to look like in, say, 10 years?
By 2040, I hope we’re going to get to 40 percent of energy generation by renewables. We see the potential for fossil fuel substitution with renewables, especially solar panels and battery combinations. We see the potential of interconnecting homes with these systems, so that they can either buy, sell, opt in, opt out, from the system. We see smart metering, distributed generation, and many mini-grids and micro-grids across the island.
How would you describe the pushback you’ve gotten against renewable power from the fossil-fuel establishment?
I’ve gotten enormous pushback. But you know what? We’re going to plow through this. It is a top priority of my administration, like making a new health care model, tax reform, empowering our education reform. I’m getting all sorts of pushback from all these things, but I was elected to help transform Puerto Rico, and whatever that may cost, we’re going to achieve it.
How do you think about the risks of climate change for Puerto Rico in the future?
I’ll draw an analogy. Puerto Rico is in fiscal chaos. If certain states don’t start taking a good look at their fiscal situation, they’re going to be in this stage in the very near future. Similarly, with climate change. Because Puerto Rico is an island, because we’re at the equator, we’re going to feel the earliest impacts from the most dramatic climate change components. As you know, a slight shift in temperature means a significant shift in the change of the depth of water, due to sea-level rise. In Puerto Rico, this is not only a theory. It’s reality.
In the northeast of the island, we have an island called Palomino, and we have a smaller island right next to it that’s called Palominita. These are really small islands, mind you, but today, the smaller island does not exist anymore. It’s gone. People have a real showcase of what could happen. The coastlines in Puerto Rico are eroding, so one of the components is to make sure that we have the most avant-garde erosion policy, so that we can mitigate for places like Loiza or the northwest coast of the island, which are essentially being eaten out with the erosion.
Of course, as you’ve seen, just the changes in weather patterns are an issue. The hurricanes and so forth. Our island will probably be affected more severely and earlier than other places.
What I see in Puerto Rico with this rebuilding effort is the opportunity to become ground zero for climate change mitigation and make sure we can have a safe society within whatever is occurring. That’s number one. From our little corner of the world, we need to make sure we’re also a model for what needs to be done, so that we can prevent or mitigate the effects of climate change. It’s a top priority of mine because it really is our legacy.
I’m the only governor in the U.S. who is a scientist, so when other politicians say or talk about climate change and they say, “Well, I’m not a scientist, but X, Y, and Z,” I can actually say that I am a scientist and that I understand what these changes are producing and the lasting irreversible effect that it can have on our planet.
Of course, President Trump believes that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese.
Well, I’m against that position. This goes beyond politics. It goes beyond geopolitics. We have one world. That’s all we have. We need to assume the responsibility not only for the immediate future or the consideration of our political base, but rather for the well-being of this generation and the up and coming generations.
Did this storm and its aftermath change the odds for statehood for Puerto Rico?
I think that there is now an awareness about the status of Puerto Rico that really we never had in the past. Prior to the storm, about 20 percent of U.S. citizens knew that we were American citizens as well. After the storm, and to this day, upwards of 80 percent now know that we’re U.S. citizens. So, it might be that’s a game changer, right?
Another thing that happened was people saw the difference between the relief response in Puerto Rico to say Texas or Florida. And when people saw that it was a lesser response than in those two states, the obvious question was, “Why are these U.S. citizens being treated differently than the U.S. citizens in Florida or in Texas?”
I’m optimistic, of course. I think that it is the right time for the United States to eradicate this notion of second-class citizenship, which is just burdensome, and is a real problem for American democracy.
Have you brought up the issue of statehood directly with President Trump?
Yes, actually there’s a video of it, because at one of the lunches that we had with the other governors, I implored him about statehood. I said, “This is the right time to do it.” Obviously, there still hasn’t been a direct answer, but I think it’s a compelling argument whether you’re a Republican or Democrat. If you are American, and if you love what America stands for — diversity, the American dream, opportunities of democracy and so forth — then if we really want to fulfill those aspirations, then we need to end colonialism in Puerto Rico and in the United States.
What grade would you give President Trump on the disaster relief effort?
The federal response has been great in some respects, and it has been lackluster in others. Our collaboration with HUD for the Community Development Block Grant funding has been exceptional to this point. Our work with FEMA has had some ups, but has also had some downs. For example, the bureaucracy that has been imposed on Puerto Rico has been excessive, has delayed our recovery process significantly, and really we still don’t have any justification for it. This wouldn’t happen in any other state. And lastly, the Corps of Engineers’ response in restoring the energy grid was just God-awful.
You recently said that not demanding a more accurate death count was one of the biggest mistakes you made after the storm. What happened?
Well, to put it into context, this hurricane really devastated the whole of Puerto Rico. There was no communications. There was very little functionality. We had a standard protocol for reporting deaths, in our demographic registry offices, but without any communications, without any electricity, without people being able to get from their homes to the offices or even to hospitals, it was really challenging to get that information.
At that juncture, we decided to implement the guidelines of a protocol from the Centers for Disease Control, which includes a section where the doctors established what the cause of death was and if it was related to the storm. That is how we started doing our counts. Of course, perhaps a month into that process, we realized that it really was no good. There was a lot of information that we weren’t extracting and there still was a lot of lack of communication from areas where folks were saying that there were more deaths than what were accounted for.
What I decided to do at that point was say, “Hey. We clearly don’t have a grasp on this situation. Let’s figure out a way to do it and the best way to do that is to get the experts involved.” So we established an independent group of epidemiological experts from George Washington University to evaluate that.
You have a degree from MIT, and before you ran for governor, you were working on stem cell research. Do you ever wish you stuck with a career in science instead of moving into politics?
I have a hard job. Some people have called it the toughest job in politics in the world because I have to deal with the Financial Oversight Board, because I have this proxy war in the United States, because we have this devastation from the hurricanes, as well as the climate crisis. But you know what? I love my people, and I love what I do. I feel blessed to have this opportunity to help Puerto Rico in possibly our greatest time of challenge and need.