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?

shelters_postmaria

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

shelterees_postmaria

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.

 

 

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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 Status.pr, 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.

overallwater

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.

regionsplot

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.

 

How Many Puerto Rican Lives Did Hurricane Maria Claim?

A few weeks ago, Governor Ricardo Rosselló traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify in Congress and to ask federal authorities for $94.4 billion to rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. In his testimony before the U.S. House of Representative’s Natural Resources Committee, Rosselló promised the “most transparent” recovery effort in U.S. history. But for all the promises, the Puerto Rican government’s response to Hurricane Maria’s impact has been marred in controversy.

One of the biggest controversies has been the Rosselló administration’s accounting of all the deaths associated with Hurricane Maria. We can trace this debate to the early days of the recovery efforts. In an interview on September 26, 2017, conducted by David Begnaud of CBS News, Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, noted:

“Every moment we spend planning in a meeting or every moment we spend just not getting the help we’re supposed to get, people are starting to die. This is not painting a picture. This is just the reality that we live in, the crude aftermath of a storm, a hurricane, that has left us technically paralyzed.”

On that same day Cruz told MSNBC‘s Rachel Maddow: “We need our hospitals not to become death traps” – a reference to two patients in life support who Cruz knew had died when their hospital had lost electrical power.  And although some questioned her claims, a few days later, the government’s figures did prove her assertions correct.

The controversy on the death toll took another turn during President Donald Trump’s visit to the island on October 3, 2017. Many of Trump’s strongest critics hoped that Hurricane Maria’s destruction would sink his presidency just as the Bush administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina had ruined George W. Bush’s standing with the American people. In an effort to show that his administration’s reaction to the disaster was adequate, Trump argued that Puerto Rico had not experienced a “real catastrophe” like New Orleans faced after Hurricane Katrina. In a meeting covered by the press, Trump stated:

“We’ve saved a lot of lives. If you look at the — every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous — hundred and hundred and hundreds of people that [sic] died. And you look at what happened here with really a storm that was totally overpowering. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this. And what is your death count at this point, 17?”

Governor Rosselló interjected that 16 people were certified as dead. And Trump, in a reference to the 1,833 lives claimed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, congratulated Rosselló, federal officials, U.S. troops and other Puerto Rican leaders for preventing a Katrina-like catastrophe.

Needless to say reactions to President Trump’s comments were varied, but mostly negative. But the debate over the Rosselló administration’s accounting of hurricane-related deaths intensified a few hours after Trump left the island when Rosselló divulged that death toll had increased to 34.

Since Trump’s visit, many Puerto Rican journalists and U.S.-based reporters have questioned the Puerto Rican government’s official count of the deaths associated with Hurricane Maria. The San Juan Mayor, who also is vice president of the island’s opposition party – Partido Popular Democratico (PPD) – and who many expect will challenge Rosselló in the 2020 gubernatorial elections, has relentlessly challenged the figures, demanding more transparency in how the Rosselló administration is accounting for these deaths. In an interview with CNN‘s Jake Tapper on November 3, Cruz did not only claim that the death toll was higher, but she also added that many of these fatlities were probably “related to the lack of electricity.”

Cruz’s criticisms followed the news that the Rosselló administration approved the cremation of 911 bodies. Nidhi Prakash of Buzzfeed News noted that the authorities’ approvals were granted without analyzing whether or not these deaths were associated with the hurricane. Prakash’s interviews with funeral home owners and crematorium directors in the western  side of the island indicated that many of these deaths should be added to the government’s official death tally.

Even though Cruz’s comments echoed all these news stories, Rosselló’s supporters painted her comments as irresponsible. But a report conducted by Puerto Rico’s Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI), published on November 16, 2017, proved correct many of Cruz’s claims. It also added that the government’s methodology was not in line with best practices, while documenting at least 47 deaths that should be added to the official tally. Reacting to this CPI’s reporting, Governor Rosselló expressed confidence on his government’s figures and on his Secretary of Public Safety, Héctor Pesquera, who is responsible for these accounting efforts.

On November 20, 2017, CNN‘s John D. Sutter, Leyla Santiago and Khushbu Shah published a comprehensive investigation that interviewed the owners of 112 funeral homes in Puerto Rico. Based on these interviews, they argued that the death toll between September 20 and October 19, 2017 should stand at more than 500. At the time, the certified figures stood at 55. In comparison to Rosselló’s reaction to the CPI’s report, the governor did not dismiss the findings of the CNN story and he asked Pesquera to investigate CNN‘s claims.

On November 21, 2017, Alexis Santos of Penn State University and Jeffrey T. Howard, and independent researcher, concluded in a working paper that death toll should be much higher. Using unofficial death statisitics provided by the Puerto Rican Department of Public Safety to the CPI and comparing these figures to official death statistics for 2010 through 2016, they estimate that the death counts for September and October 2017 is higher by an estimated 500 “excess deaths” for each month.

Will we ever find out how many Puerto Ricans died as direct or indirect reaction to Hurricane Maria? Why should we care about this issue? There are at least five reasons.

First, the controversy reveals the ugliest side of our politics. In times of crisis, our elected leaders’ first reaction is to protect or to enhance their political standings. This criticisms does not only apply to President Trump, but also to Governor Rosselló.

Second, an inaccurate accounting of the fatalities minimizes the need for a full fledge investigation to determine if some of these deaths could have been prevented or whether the island’s medical facilities were negligent in terms of providing treatment to their most vulnerable patients.

Third, given current meteorological trends, Hurricane Maria will not be the last category 4+ storm to hit the island. Accounting for all the deaths associated with Hurricane Maria will help the government learn how to best react to these storms in the future.

Fourth, there is a financial aspect to this controversy. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides financial compensation to families who’s loved ones died because of the storm. Failure to include many of these fatalities in the official tally will burden these families’ finances.

Finally, this controversy raises serious questions about the serious lack of empathy expressed by  government officials to the hundreds of people who have lost a friend or a family member to Hurricane Maria.

If the Rosselló administration is interested in transparency he should start by taking seriously allegations that the Puerto Rican government has undercounted the number of fatalities associated with Hurricane Maria. It is not only morally necessary but also politically wise. Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle have questioned the Rosselló administration’s credibility and its ability to lead the island’s recovery efforts. Not only will this affect the Puerto Rican government efforts to secure the necessary resources to rebuild the island’s infrastructure, but it will be an issue that will further weaken Puerto Ricans’ trust on their government and their elected officials.

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Puerto Rico’s Residential Electricity Rates (2000-2017)

chart (59)

As Puerto Rico’s Autoridad de Energia Electrica (AEE) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slowly rebuild the island’s electric grid following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, let’s remember that Puerto Rican residents, especially in the last four years, pay one of the highest rates for electricity in the United States. How high is the price of electricity when compared to the rates by Americans in other states? We will explore this question in a few days.

These rates were obtained from the U.S. Energy Information Agency which started to collect information for Puerto Rico in 2014. The other rates were collected by the Puerto Rico Energy Commission.