Which Towns in Puerto Rico Should CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud Visit?

On March 16, 2018, David Begnaud, a correspondent for CBS News, posted a video in his Facebook and Twitter accounts, announcing his return to Puerto Rico and asking his followers to provide suggestions of places he and his team should visit to get a sense of how Puerto Rico is doing six months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

Before we consider his followers’ suggestions, let’s look at Begnaud’s reporting record and why he has been such an influential figure in the Puerto Rican community. If you are already familiar with Begnaud’s work jump to the next section.

Begnaud & Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

As I noted in an earlier post, for most Puerto Ricans living either in the U.S. mainland or in the island, Begnaud has become a household name. What has made Begnaud’s style of journalism different from his colleagues? On top of his news stories for CBS News, Begnaud has used to great effect his Twitter and Facebook accounts. Many of his tweets or Facebook posts included video interviews of federal and Puerto Rican officials shot with his iPhone and photos of the island’s devastation, which helped his followers appreciate the serious humanitarian crisis that unfolded in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. And even when he was in other parts of the United States covering other news events, Begnaud kept providing coverage of Puerto Rico’s post-Maria recovery sharing his insights or retweeting other news stories.

Begnaud’s coverage of Puerto Rico recently earned him a George Polk Award for Public Service. Furthermore, his reporting helped him grow his audience in Facebook and Twitter. For example, in early September 2017 Begnaud had around 10,000 followers in Twitter, increasing to around 75,000 by November. Today, he has around 85,300 followers in this platform. In Facebook, he currently has over 350,000 followers, growing from around 10,000 followers shortly before Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.

Crowdsourcing a News Story: Beganaud’s Facebook Followers & Their Suggestions

As of 18 March 2018, over 200,000 have viewed his video in Facebook. His post has received over 11,000 likes, more than 5,000 shares and over 2,600 comments. I started to read the comments and it became clear that there were two groups of people reacting to Begnaud’s video. The first group lived in Puerto Rico and the second where people living outside the island, but with deep knowledge of its geography and the events that have affected the recovery process. Begnaud followers encouraged him to visit different towns across the island. Which towns or municipalities received the most attention?

Using Pablo Barbera’s rFacebook package for R, I downloaded 2,658 comments. Utilizing David Robinson’s and Julia Silge’s Tidytext package, I tokenized the comments and removed ‘stopwords’ to see which towns or municipalities received the most mentions. Sixty-two of the island’s 78 municipalities received at least five mentions. San Juan and the metropolitan area were mentioned over 100 times, but I decided to exclude the capital city from the bar graph below as most of Begnaud’s followers encouraged him to pay less attention to the metro area and concentrate his reporting to smaller towns and cities.

The bar graph below details the 15 municipalities that received the most mentions. Yabucoa with 407 mentions tops the list. It is followed by Humacao with 250 mentions and Utuado with 170.

chart (11).png

The fact that Yabucoa and Humacao head this list is not surprising. Hurricane Maria made landfall in Yabucoa and the town has not recovered since then. Humacao a small city of 50,000 residents, a few miles north from Yabucoa is also still struggling to return to normal. The other towns are mostly in the island’s mountainous interior, where the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have had difficulty repairing the electric grid.

Concluding Thoughts

Begnaud’s decision to ask his followers where to visit and what issues merited his attention was a very good idea. His followers overwhelmingly believe that he should spend some time in the island’s interior and coastal towns in the southeast. Begnaud’s method raises an important question about crowdsourcing and whether journalists and other researchers should adopt this strategy. But this is an issue I will tackle in a future post.


Restoring Puerto Rico’s Electric Grid at the Municipal Level: Does the Mayor’s Party Affiliation Matter?

AJ Vicens, a reporter who covers Puerto Rico issues for Mother Jones, noted in a tweet:

Someone I met in San Juan tonight compared electric grid restoration in different parts of town to gerrymandering.

I found this tweet interesting so I replied to Mr. Vicens’s tweet, asking what he thought the person meant by that statement. And he promptly replied:

I think it was implying that power resources are distributed based on political and other factors, not necessarily on need or in an even way.

When I visited the island last week, to visit family and do some research on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) efforts to restore electricity, I also heard similar opinions. In addition, many people talked about countless alleged cases of corruption in PREPA. Some of these were covered by the local press – a subject that will be explored in a future Congressional hearing.

For now, let’s ignore the bribery allegations. I am interested in the following question: has politics played a role in the efforts to restore electricity to the island’s municipalities? In other words, does political party affiliation or political favoritism determined the USACE’s and PREPA’s efforts? And why do Puerto Ricans feel that this is the case?

Before we answer these questions, it is important to first note that Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipalities, each with an elected mayor and an elected legislative assembly.

In terms of population, the biggest municipality is San Juan with 347,052 people and the smallest is Culebra with 1,818 people. While the pro-statehood, Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) won all the territory-level  institutions (i.e. the governorship, the legislature and the resident commissioner seat) in the 2016 general election, the pro-Commonwealth Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) won 45 of the municipalities. Over 2 million people live in municipalities controlled by the PPD, while close to 1.4 million live in municipalities controlled by the PNP. 

As of this morning, 179 days since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, 92% of the island’s 1,473,000 electricity customers have power, leaving around 120,000 customers without power. As the graph below shows, since 2 January 2018, around 545,000 customers have been reconnected to the electric grid.

chart (5)

Unfortunately, we don’t have these customer level data for the last months of 2017 as PREPA’s computer systems could not calculate how many meters were connected to the grid. But the graph shows that the process to repair the electric system has been very slow and has frustrated many Puerto Ricans.

Another problem with this graph is that it does not actually tell us how many people have electricity at the municipal level. Since mid-January 2018, the USACE has been sharing the number of connected meters by regions. The regions corresponds to PREPA’s division of the islands into the following clusters: Arecibo, Bayamon, Caguas, Carolina, Ponce, Mayaguez and San Juan.

Since mid November 2017, some PPD mayors have questioned whether PREPA and the USACE have spent more time and resources addressing the electricity needs of municipalities controlled by the PNP. While PREPA officials have denied these claims, in mid January 2018, more PPD mayors, frustrated by the slow pace of the recovery, raised the same concerns. While Governor Ricardo Rosselló asked the mayors not to politicize the recovery efforts, his chief of staff, William Villafañe, admitted that the mayors needed access to more information on PREPA’s efforts. Villafañe’s efforts however have not addressed these mayors’ concerns, as many of them noted in a meeting hosted by the governor on 28 February 2018.

Given the island’s politics and Puerto Ricans’ frustrations with the slow recovery process, it is not surprising that many believe that the efforts to repair the island’s electric grid has been shaped by political connections to La Fortaleza – the governor’s residence. But, is this the case?

On 19 January 2018, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día, as a reaction to PPD mayors’ growing criticisms, published the percentage of meters connected to the electric grid in each municipality. As noted in the table below, 60% of the island’s electric customers had power. The average of customers with electricity in municipalities controlled by either political party was the same.

I recently received a copy of a map prepared by the USACE and PREPA for the 28 February meeting mentioned above. At the time, 80.5% of the island’s electric customers had power. The figures suggest that the average number of customers with electricity in municipalities administered by mayors of the PPD and PNP is roughly the same. But given that more Puerto Ricans today reside in PPD-controlled municipalities, the total number of customers connected to the grid is larger in PPD-controlled municipalities than in PNP-controlled ones.

chart (8)

Although I do not have recent figures, these numbers suggest that political favoritism probably did not influence the USACE‘s and PREPA’s efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers. Looking at averages is a tricky undertaking as these numbers can hide important trends. In future posts, I will break these numbers at the regional level. This may provide new ways to look at the data, discover new trends, and reveal insights that may answer these important questions.

While more research is still need, it is also critical to take this opportunity and reflect as to why the mayors and so many Puerto Ricans believe that the USACE and PREPA’s efforts are driven by political favoritism and corruption. Lack of trust in the island’s political parties or political institutions is not a new development. The slow recovery process has only heightened these sentiments and these will further complicate efforts to reform Puerto Rico’s economy and political structures.

Similarly, this lack of trust is also an outcome of a poor public relations strategy on the part of the Puerto Rico’s government. To be fair to the USACE and PREPA, they have used their various social media accounts to inform the world about their efforts. Although their communications do help us understand why it has taken so long to repair the electrical system, they have not addressed Puerto Ricans’ frustrations or anxieties.

Moreover, Puerto Ricans’ negative view of PREPA’s record of poor service has shaken their confidence on the public utility’s capacity to restore power to the island. Similarly, Governor Rosselló’s repeated criticisms of the USACE’s efforts has forced many Puerto Ricans to question its personnel’s commitment and resolve.

It is too late to correct these problems. But lessons need to be learned as Puerto Ricans start to prepare for the 2018 hurricane season.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Generation of Electricity in Puerto Rico Post-Maria

In the last few posts, I have been looking at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) efforts to restore Puerto Rico’s electric grid after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. As I noted earlier, the USACE is not leading these efforts. It is part of the Power Restoration Task Force to Coordinate the Restoration Efforts, which is headed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Puerto Rico’s government.

The USACE’s efforts have been guided by a four-part strategy, which includes: (1) the installation of emergency power generation; (2) restoring electricity generation to the pre-Maria average of 2500-3000 megawatts (MW); (3) repair of the grid’s transmission system; and (4) the rebuilding of the distribution system.

Since 18 October 2017, the USACE has regularly provided a snapshot of PREPA’s electricity generation capacity. Echoing the Puerto Rican government’s information portal, StatusPR, electricity generation is expressed as a percentage. StatusPR’s measurement is problematic because it does not specify how much electricity the island’s power plants are producing at a given point in time. The USACE’s statistics are more useful as they provide the actual megawatts of electricity being produced on a daily basis. For example, on 16 February 2018, electricity generation stood at 1928 MW, while it was 2008 MW four days later.

The USACE’s numbers show that we can measure power generation via three different mechanisms. First, we can calculate the actual generation of megawatts per day, which the following graph captures.

chart (3)

Because the USACE’s goal is to restore the grid’s generation capacity to between 2500 and 3000 megawatts, we can calculate the daily amount of power generation against these two goals. In the next graph, the blue line represents the actual percentage of generated power reported by the USACE’s infographics and StatusPR. This is the actual number consistently reported by the media in their reporting. Thus, on 20 February 2018 the reported percentage is 85%.

The red line uses 2500 MW as the goal, while the yellow line sets the goal to 3000 MW. In this manner, each line represents the percentage of generated electricity based on these goals. On 20 February total generation equaled 2008 MW. Thus, this represents 80% of the total power the USACE wants to generate in the near future, if we use 2500 MW as the generation goal. Similarly, if we use 3000 MW as the standard, the island’s power plants are generating 67% of the goal.

chart (2)

What role has the USACE played in restoring the grid’s power generation capacities? An assessment conducted by PREPA and the New York  Power Authority found that most of Puerto Rico’s seven power plants experienced some damage because of Hurricane Maria. On 20 October 2017, the USACE’s Commanding General and Chief of Engineers, Lt. General Todd Semonite, explained that while damages to the grid’s transmission and distributions systems were the most challenging aspects of the restoration strategy, there was not “enough capacity in Puerto Rico’s existing power plants to provide electricity to the island.” Thus, one of the USACE’s main objectives was not only to work with PREPA to repair the existing power plants, but to also purchase and install new electricity generators.

On 16 October 2017, the USACE contracted the Pennsylvania-based Weston Solutions to install two 25MW generators in PREPA’s Palo Seco power plant. By the end of October, both plants were generating around 30MW of electricity, helping to “stabilize the power grid in the San Juan area”.  In an effort to provide electricity to manufacturing facilities, hospitals and other critical infrastructure in the southeastern towns of the island, the USACE awarded a contract in early November 2017 to Aptim Federal Services to install a 25MW generator in the Yabucoa power plant. The new generator became operational on 9 December 2017.

The USACE and PREPA, along with their contractors, have increased the grids capacity to generate electricity. While things have improved, it has been a slow process. And given the Stafford Act’s provisions, the most problematic aspect of this strategy is that these restoration efforts are not transforming the island’s electricity system. Hence the post-Maria electricity system will be highly dependent on fossil fuels and it will fail to meet current environmental standards.

The next posts will examine the USACE efforts to restore the electric grid’s transmission and distribution systems.

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, it 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’s efforts to secure the necessary resources to rebuild the island’s infrastructure. It will also be an issue that will further weaken Puerto Ricans’ trust on their government and their elected officials.