The depth of the crisis in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria is apparent from the island’s obliterated roads, downed power lines, tainted water, and nonexistent cell service. Grief and dismay over the widespread destruction has led to calls for aid and assistance for the ravaged island, but long after the shock fades, the staggering task of rebuilding the island will remain.
That’s a challenge made markedly more difficult by the poverty of the island’s people and its government—it’s not clear where the necessary money will come from. The crisis makes clear the uncomfortable tension inherent in the island’s status as a commonwealth; Puerto Rican officials have no congressional power when it comes to making decisions about their own survival during such a dangerous time, and the U.S. government has repeatedly declined to do anything that would change that. So, once the U.S. citizens who populate the island are given relief for their most immediate problems—as they very likely will be—the biggest worry is that the territory will be left to flounder, given enough money to restore basic necessities but not enough to set the island on course in the long run.
Managing the immediate humanitarian crisis is the first large recovery expense. In the aftermath of the storm, all of the island’s 3.4 million residents were left without power, communication on the island was severely hampered after the storm destroyed cell towers, and many were left without clean drinking water. Addressing those critical problems is made more difficult and more expensive by geography, says Steven Kyle, a professor at Cornell who studies economic development. One example, Kyle says, is that many of the workers who will help to repair and rebuild the electrical grid can’t just drive down to the disaster site with their equipment, the way they might be able to in Texas. Instead, they will need to be flown in, with some equipment shipped—which will bring up the cost of even the most basic repairs. “All those things could be dealt with if [the government] wanted to,” Kyle adds. “But I don't think Puerto Rico’s at the top of their list in Washington.”