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.

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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.

Why did Ricardo Rosselló Create Puerto Rico’s “Statehood Commission”?

Six months ago, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, signed a bill establishing the “Puerto Rico Equality Commission” – known today as the “Puerto Rico Statehood Commission”. The goal of the Commission is to help the Puerto Rican government lobby the U.S. Congress to admit the unincorporated U.S. territory as the nation’s 51st state. The bill stipulates that the Commission is part of ” the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA)” and as such PRFAA “shall request and justify before the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Legislative Assembly the allocation of funds for the operations of the Commission as part of the budget thereof.”

Inspired by the Tennessee Plan, the Commission’s seven members serve as “shadow lawmakers” asking Congress to recognize them as Puerto Rico’s representatives. Thus, two of these members serve as “shadow” senators and the rest are “shadow” congressmen. The strategy went into effect this week. On January 10, 2018, Jennifer González Colón, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, in a speech in the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives asked the U.S. Congress to recognize and seat the Commission’s members in their respective chambers.

After her “historic” speech, she joined the Commission’s member and Governor Rosselló for a press conference to explain their strategy’s rationale. In many ways, Rosselló and the Commission’s members noted that they wanted to end the island’s colonial history and its second-class status, while also fulfilling the will of the voters who favored statehood in the controversial plebiscite held on June 11, 2017.

Why has Rosselló and the leaders of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) pursued this strategy? After all, the island and its residents are still coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In addition, while the statehood option received 97% of the votes in the June plebiscite, only 23% of registered voters participated in the process – raising question about the validity of the vote. Both the White House and Congress have demonstrated little interest in Puerto Rico’s status question and statehood does not enjoy widespread support among Democratic or Republican lawmakers at this time.

Also, the strategy seems to be poorly executed. Here are at least two criticisms. First, the Commission’s website has not been updated recently. For instance, the site fails to mention that Alfonso Aguilar, who replaced Felix Santoni, is a member of the Commission. It also fails to explain who the “shadow senators” and “shadow congressmen” actually are. Plus the site fails to provide biographical notes for each of its members. Even worse, it is not clear how people can contact the Commission.

Second, the press conference was not even transmitted via C-SPAN. The best we have is a shaky Facebook Live video captured with a cell phone. If this was a serious effort, the Governor should have paid a videographer to tape the conference and share segments of the press conference with major news outlets and make a full copy available via YouTube.

If the goal of the conference was to raise awareness about Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations, it is not clear that this was achieved. Google Trends data for January 10, 2018 does show that interest in Puerto Rico among Google users in the United States increased. But interest was not driven by the announcement of the Statehood Commission, but by the tsunami alert issued for Puerto Rico following a 7.6 earthquake off Hondura’s coast.

A search in the TV News archive for January 10 and 11, 2017 also shows that the tsunami alert dominated the news coverage during the morning of the 10th, while the news coverage connected to Puerto Rico for the rest of the 10th and the 11th was connected to a national shortage of IV bags, many of which are produced in Puerto Rico. The single mention of the Statehood Commission is linked to a C-SPAN video of González Colón’s speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

An although some print and online media did cover the news conference and Rosselló’s plan, a MediaCloud search shows that coverage of the Statehood Commission was overshadowed by other issues connected with the island’s slow recovery after Hurricane Maria.

In many ways, the goal of González Colón’s speech and the subsequent press conference was to try to unify the NPP and to try to remake Rosselló’s image as leader of the NPP and of Puerto Rico. Before Hurricane Maria, Rosselló was seen by many as a competent leader. Today, that is not the case. Some prominent lawmakers and Trump administration officials have questioned his decisions, many Puerto Ricans seem to be losing hope that he (and his administration, including the First Lady) can lead the Puerto Rican government forward, and many of the NPP’s leaders have either undermined his authority or are ready to do so in the near future. This last point especially applies to the Republican members of the Commission and the NPP who have raised questions of Rosselló’s criticisms of the Trump administration and the Republican Party following passage of the federal tax bill.

It is difficult to foresee what impact Puerto Rico’s slow recovery or the current state of US-Puerto Rican relations will have on the aspirations of the pro-statehood movement. But if Rosselló cannot find ways to secure the island’s streets, rebuild the electricity grid and get Congress to finance Puerto Rico’s recovery, many Puerto Ricans are not only going to question Rosselló’s governorship but his strategy of combining his fight for statehood with the island’s post-Maria recovery.  If this happens, the Commission’s credibility will weaken and pro-statehood Puerto Ricans’ dreams will also fade with time.

 

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.

 

 

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.