Data on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Blue Roof Program in Puerto Rico

CNN’s John D. Sutter, alongside Cristian Arroyo and McKenna Ewen, have embarked on a road-trip across Puerto Rico, tracking the path taken by Hurricane Maria over the island. Their road-trip, aptly named #LaRutadeMaria, started four days ago. Their reporting captures the day-to-day struggles so many Puerto Ricans still face to this day. Many of their tweets include photographs of the interviewees’ homes or landscape images of different neighborhoods hard hit by the hurricane. And if there is one common theme among all the images it is that many of the houses they have visited are very badly damaged and most have lost parts of their roofs.

In one of the tweets, Sutter shares a photograph of “workers installing a blue roof.” He notes: “Last I heard less than 30% of applicants had gotten help from @USACEHQ” – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Twitter handle.The USACE’s has been following Sutter’s work, responding directly to some of his tweets. And it seems that at least one person in Comerio has benefited by the coverage.

This is a great opportunity for us to consider the USACE’s work in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Since mid-October the Corps has been actively reporting on its activities in Puerto Rico, posting photos, stories and infographics about their work via their social media accounts.

To date, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded USACE, 27 assignments and a budget of $2.4 billion. Of these 27 assignments the most important are:

  1. The rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s electrical system;
  2. The installment of emergency temporary generators;
  3. The removal of 3.7 million cubic yards of debris in 49 out of the island’s 78 municipalities; and
  4. The installment of temporary emergency roofing (i.e. blue roofs).

The USACE’s “Operation Blue Roof” has been a controversial subject. FEMA had to cancel a contract it had awarded to a Missouri-based company for failing to deliver the tarps on schedule. New contracts have been recently awarded, but it will take time to manufacture, transport and distribute these temporary roof coverings to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Thus, the demand for these temporary roofs have been higher than the supply. How much higher? The following chart uses data from USACE’s “Daily Progress Graphic” to answer this question.


As of December 17, 2017 – 88 days after Hurricane Maria made downfall – the USACE has only installed 31% of the requested 72,909 blue tarps. The USACE currently expects to deliver up to 75,000 for these plastic roofs, though the numbers will increase given that the government of Puerto Rico estimates that Hurricane Maria destroyed or seriously damaged more than 472,000 houses.

What should we make of these figures? Regardless of what the Puerto Rican government says, the relief effort is still in the “emergency phase”. Returning the island to a pre-Irma state will take months, if not years. And the longer it takes for Puerto Rico to get back on its feet, the more frustration the island’s residents will feel towards their elected leaders, while encouraging many to question the current state of U.S.-Puerto Rico relations.

This short analysis was prompted by Sutter’s road-trip and his Twitter-based vignettes of Puerto Ricans trying to cope with their current socio-economic challenges. His reporting has given voice to a number of working class Puerto Ricans that have been the most affected by this crisis. It is worth following his Twitter account or searching for the tweets that include the hashtag – #LaRutadeMaria – to gain a more comprehensive account of the island’s humanitarian crisis.

In future posts, I will delve into other aspects of the USACE’s work, while also considering Governor Ricardo Rosselló ‘s reactions to the Republican tax plan, which will hurt the island’s economy.



How Many Puerto Ricans are Still Living in Government-Run Shelters after Hurricane Maria?

In trying to understand Hurricane Maria’s political and socio-economic effects on Puerto Rico, I have been doing research on Hurricane Georges’s impact on the island in 1998. Georges made landfall on September 21 as Category 3 hurricane. The storm’s eye-wall entered the island south of Humacao and exited north of Cabo Rojo. A lot of the destruction was associated with Georges’s heavy rainfall which topped at 30 inches in Jayuya.

On October 30, 1998, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted that the Puerto Rican government administered 416 shelters, housing around 28,000 individuals.  Georges claimed the lives of 8 Puerto Ricans; one as a direct result of the hurricane and seven were classified as indirect deaths. The CDC collected this information from Puerto Rico’s Institute for Forensic Science.

How many shelters did the Puerto Rican government establish before Hurricane Maria made landfall and how many Puerto Ricans have resided in these facilities?


Surprisingly, the Puerto Rican government only operated 160 shelters after Hurricane Maria. Even though Maria was more destructive than Georges, data collected from demonstrate that these shelters housed up to 11,105 people.


As of December 10, the government is administering 39 shelters with 737 still living there. At this rate, some of these Puerto Ricans will be celebrating the holidays in these shelters.

The difference between Georges and Maria are quite stark in terms of the number of shelters and people living in these facilities. Why? Did Georges destroy more homes than Maria? How do these numbers compare to Hurricane Hugo?

In terms of Hugo, a CDC study found that the Puerto Rican government established 161 shelters, housing an estimated 10,300 persons. Compared to Georges and Maria, Hugo was less destructive, mostly affecting Vieques, Culebra and the towns of Humacao, Ceiba, Fajardo, Luquillo, Rio Grande and Canovanas.

Why are we seeing such a low number of shelters and shelterees today? Can the island’s shrinking population explain this anomaly?

 Hurricane Estimated Total Population Highest Number of Shelterees Percentage of Population in Shelters
Hugo 3,487,000 10,300 0.30%
Georges 3,770,000 28,000 0.74%
Maria 3,411,000 11,105 0.33%

It is important to note that the total population estimate was calculated by the U.S. Census. The figure for Maria represents the U.S. Census estimate for 2016 as this year’s estimate is not available. But what is clear is that today’s numbers are comparable to Hugo’s and lower than the Georges’s.

This issue deserves more research. It would be interesting to see whether we could have a better understanding of where the shelters were established, how many people resided in these facilities and for how long. I wonder if these data are available for Hurricanes Georges and Hugo too. More importantly, how many shelters were opened before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico? How many people rode out the storm in these buildings? How many people resided in these shelters in the first days after the storm?

Given the available data, it seems that more people lived in shelters following Hurricane Georges than Hurricane Maria. This reality raises one important question: how accurate are the Puerto Rican government’s current statistics? Are there any shelters established by private donors, such as churches or the Red Cross, not included in the government’s tallies? And if so, how many people have they helped?

This is an interesting puzzle and I will further investigated in future posts.



Restoring Potable Water in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria

For the last weeks, I have been looking at the controversies connected to the Puerto Rican government’s ability to restore electricity to the island’s residential, commercial and industrial customers. While there are many reasons why the destruction of Puerto Rico’s electrical systems deserves a lot of attention, it is worth highlighting the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority’s (PRASA) efforts to restore potable water to the island’s population, which is a more positive story.

Using data from, the first line graph shows that by October 2, PRASA re-established 47% of the island’s potable water. Today, 93% of PRASA’s customers have water.


The second graph explores the restoration of potable water by region. It also illustrate the impact Hurricane Maria had on PRASA’s infrastructure in different parts of the island. The most affected regions were the northern and western regions, followed by the eastern and southern regions.


While PRASA has been able to restore water to a majority of Puerto Ricans, there are many residential customers who will not have potable water in their homes until early next year.  Many of these customers reside in the island’s mountain towns, which are part of PRASA’s northern region.


The Risk of Unrealistic Expectations: Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s Electrical System and the Rosselló Administration’s Credibility Crisis

The Puerto Rican government currently faces two crises. One caused by Hurricanes Irma’s and Maria’s destruction of the island’s infrastructure. The other is a credibility crisis caused by  the government’s incapacity to address Puerto Rico’s post-Maria challenges and worsened by Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s unrealistic expectations about the recovery efforts.

The efforts to restore electricity to the island’s customers is a good example of these unrealistic expectations. On October 14, 2017, Rosselló promised that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) would reestablish electricity to 95% of customers before December 15.  During the news conference, he also ordered PREPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to meet a set of short-term goals, captured in the table below.

Date Electricity Generation Goal
Difference Between Actual Generation & Stated Goal 
October 31 30% +3%
November 15 50% -21%
December 1 80% -14%
December 15 95%   ?

The following graph help us see the pace of power restoration. The horizontal colored lines each represent one of the goals listed in the above table, while the blue trend line represents the percentage of electricity generated from September 21 to December 1, 2017.

chart (62)

The graph also illustrates some of the challenges the electrical system has faced in this time period. For example on November 15, PREPA met the goal of 50% electricity generation, but a problem with one of the high voltage transmission lines reduced the figure to 29%.

Why did Rosselló set in place these ambitious goals? After all, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), as I noted in a previous post, explained that these goals were unrealistic from the get go. One explanation is that Rosselló may have set these goals to encourage PREPA, private contractors and the USACE  to work harder and faster. Another more cynical explanation is that “groupthink” has affected the governor’s decision-making process,  forcing his advisors to conform with Rosselló’s understanding of the crisis and suppressing any form of dissension amongst his inner circle.

Regardless of the reasons, Rosselló’s decision to set these unrealistic expectations and PREPA’s and the USACE’s inability to meet these goals are starting to wear on Puerto Ricans’ patience. While we do not have any public opinion data, it seems that anger against Rosselló and his government is growing in the island. In Washington, D.C., more and more lawmakers are raising serious questions about the Puerto Rican government’s capacity to lead the island’s recovery efforts.