The increasing likelihood of cascading failures is the most important thing the press has missed about the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, devastated by Hurricane Maria. By knocking out the entire electrical grid, supplies of clean and safe water, telecommunications and roads, the storm unraveled the complicated web of infrastructure that underpins modern life. It is a vicious circle: Clearing roads requires fuel, pumping fuel requires electricity, repairing electric lines requires cleared roads.
Five weeks after the strong Category 4 (nearly Category 5) hurricane made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sep 20, 80% of electric customers are still without electricity and 30% are still without safe drinking water. Real health threats ordinarily unthinkable to Americans – Puerto Rico is United States soil and its people are United States citizens, even if nearly half of the American people do not know that – could drag the territory into Third World conditions of disease and misery. Official government statements say at least four people have died and 74 were sickened by leptospirosis, a bacterial infection spread by animal urine and waste contamination of drinking water; typhus and cholera could be next. Puerto Rico’s own Center for Investigative Journalism reported many cases of hospitals and shelters unable to provide critically necessary maintenance care, such as oxygen and tube-feeding, and patients simply being sent home to die, as we have also reported (“Don’t Forget Puerto Rico” by Mike Ryan, Oct 18). There is even disagreement about how to count storm deaths.
Government ineptitude has been rampant, symbolized by President Donald Trump throwing paper towels into the crowd during a public appearance, prompting sociological analysis. The local electric utility, which filed for bankruptcy a few weeks before the hurricane, is being investigated for awarding the contract to repair the electric power grid, worth $300 million, to a Montana company with only two full-time employees that happens to be located in the hometown of federal Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is under scrutiny for flying on charter aircraft owned by oil and gas exploration firms. The contract literally states “In no event shall [government bodies] have the right to audit or review the cost and profit elements” and that the government “waives any claim against contractor related to delayed completion of work.” Congress is so outraged that the Puerto Rico financial oversight board, a federal entity created earlier this year to prevent the territorial government itself from collapse into bankruptcy, is likely to appoint one of its own members to take over the electric utility.
Will the rest of the United States allow Puerto Rico to fall into a humanitarian abyss, turning our own fellow citizens into domestic refugees forced to abandon the island territory and move to the mainland? Could we ever have imagined that the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” would be escaping – America?