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.

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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.

 

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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)

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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.

 

Electricity Generation in Puerto Rico Following Hurricanes Irma and Maria

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On November 17, 2017, Ricardo Ramos stepped down as the executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). Governor Ricardo Rosselló quickly accepted his resignation and noted that controversies connected to Ramos’s decisions post-Maria had become a distraction. Once he appointed an interim replacement, Rosselló reemphasized that the goal is to restore electricity to 95% of PREPA’s customers by Christmas. Is this objective feasible? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as noted in previous posts, has made it clear that they expect to restore power to most Puerto Ricans by February 2018.

In today’s graph, we chart the percentage of electricity generated by PREPA from September 5, 2017 – the day before Hurricane Irma skirted the island’s northeast coast – to November 17.

The data before September 29, 2017 was collected by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office for Infrastructure Security and Energy Restoration. The rest has been made public in the Puerto Rican’s Government Portal – StatusPR. This is not to say that this portal’s information is accurate. For instance, on November 15 it reported that PREPA’s electricity production was at 50% but the information did not take into account a power outage that reduced production to around 20%, increasing to 37% by that night.

As of today, November 18, PREPA’s electricity generation is still under 50%. It is not clear how many Puerto Ricans actually have electricity at home, as PREPA and the Puerto Rican government claim that they can’t provide an accurate estimate. The U.S. Department of Energy on November 16 noted that 57 out of 78 municipalities “are partially energized or have energized facilities”.

Many Puerto Ricans, especially in the island’s interior, have had no power for over 70 days.

CBS Correspondent David Begnaud’s Tweets: 34 Days After Hurricane Maria

For Puerto Ricans living in the mainland or in the island, CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud has become a household name. Only a few journalists covered Hurricane Maria’s devastation a few hours after the storm swept through Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. And Begnaud’s reporting helped many people around the world appreciate the magnitude of the destruction and the unfolding humanitarian crisis. 

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 to explain the island’s challenges. Many of his tweets or posts include video interviews of federal and Puerto Rican officials shot with his iPhone and photos of the island’s devastation. 

An article on Begnaud’s work, published in The Daily Advertiser, notes that his “Facebook page jumped from 10,000 followers to 315,000 followers in just under one month.” Similarly, on September 1, 2017, Begnaud had around 10,400 Twitter followers, growing to over 75,000 followers this week. In addition, Google Trends data show that during this time period Google users in the United States became more interested in his reporting as well.

chart (16)

In this post, I want to conduct a quick analysis of Begnaud’s Twitter activity. Using TwitteR, a package created by Jeff Gentry for the R programming language, I downloaded his tweets from September 19 to October 24, 2017, totaling 413 tweets.

The graph below shows how many tweets Begnaud has posted per day.

chart (36)

In Twitter, users can interact with others users in three different ways. They can respond to a particular tweet by making a comment, they can “reTweet” a tweet or they can “favorite” it. For a journalist, reTweets are a valuable commodity as users who reTweet a tweet are sharing this tweet with their followers. Thus, reTweets help tweets go viral.

The graph below shows a timeline of all the “favorites” Begnaud’s tweets earned during the time period.

chart (15)

Two tweets standout. On September 26, he posted the following tweet, which was favorited 34,933 times: “About 44% of the population in Puerto Rico is without drinking water, according to the Department of Defense. It’s 90 degrees today.

A day later he tweeted: “Maddening. 3,000 shipping containers packed with food water & medicene [sic] have been sitting at the port in Puerto Rico since Saturday. This post was favorited 36,142 times.

The next graph help us visualize all the reTweets.

chart (35)

Not surprisingly, the most reTweeted tweets are also the most “favorited” . The tweet of September 27, 2017 was covered by other media outlets around the world. On this day, Begnaud had 21,700 followers. By October 4, after President Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico, he had 49,800 followers.

Begnaud’s reporting has covered many issues, such as FEMA’s and the Puerto Rican government’s efforts to restore power and water to the island’s residents. He has also reported on Puerto Ricans’ frustrations gaining access to the USNS Comfort, the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship which has been docked in San Juan harbor since on October 3, 2017. Begnaud’s tweets have also made references to Governor Ricardo Rossello, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and President Trump. The following pie chart helps us visualize the total amount of tweets that mention each topic or individual. 

chart (38)

How are Begnaud’s tweets different from his Facebook’s posts? I will conduct this analysis at later date. But for now it is worth noting that his use of Twitter as a journalism tool has helped him raise awareness of Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. His tweets and Facebook posts have helped government officials understand Puerto Ricans’ frustrations. Begnaud has also been able to use these social media platforms to make the decision-making process more transparent and to hold accountable federal and Puerto Rican government officials for their post-Maria recovery strategies. It is no wonder that so many people in and outside the island have started online petitions asking for Begnaud to be considered for an Emmy or a Pulitzer for his reporting.

Are you familiar with Begnaud’s reporting? What do you think of his work? Feel free to share your views.