Pedro Reina-Pérez: Puerto Rico’s Governor Confirmed His People’s Worst Suspicions
Now, however, Puerto Rico faces not just the accumulated physical and civic damage caused by multiple crises, or the usual indifference from Washington. The island must also contend with the personal animosity of President Donald Trump, who has dismissed Puerto Rico as “one of the most corrupt places on earth.” Of the $43 billion allocated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for recovery, only $14 billion had been disbursed by the second anniversary of the hurricanes, according to the Center for Investigative Journalism. Yesterday, the Trump administration imposed stringent new conditions on the release of congressionally authorized aid, including a prohibition on using money to repair Puerto Rico’s electrical grid.
But the slow pace of promised aid has hampered the island’s ability to rebuild from past disasters, much less prepare for future ones.
Puerto Ricans, who are profoundly exposed to hurricanes, have always known that a major earthquake was a possibility too, because the island sits right where the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates meet, but islanders hadn’t experienced a major earthquake in more than a century. The last one took place the morning of October 11, 1918. It and the tsunami that followed left 116 people dead. The absence of significant seismic activity for more than 100 years created an experience vacuum; no one now alive had coped firsthand with such incidents, and building practices had never been seriously tested.
Read: Puerto Rico’s environmental catastrophe
That is not to say that everyone has been silent about the risk of earthquakes. The geomorphologist José Molinelli, an expert on seismic events and a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, had warned the government and the public for decades on the need to update building codes and survival plans. Few people, however, heeded his advice.
The quakes are a human tragedy of great proportions that compounds Puerto Rico’s already dire situation.
Meanwhile, the Fiscal Management and Control Board, imposed by Congress in 2016 to address the island’s financial insolvency, continues to cut pensions and impose austerity measures, because of the diminished fiscal capacity of the Puerto Rican government. Last week, the board agreed to release $260 million to the government for the earthquake recovery effort, a negligible amount considering the complexity of the situation. Guánica, Guayanilla, Yauco, and Ponce are the towns on the south coast most affected by the tremors, with multiple structures permanently damaged, including a Catholic church in Guayanilla and a public school in Guánica that crumbled to the ground. In many areas, roads are closed, and access to basic services is limited. As the ground continues to rumble, residents are sleeping outdoors out of fear and only a few are willing to relocate, complicating the recovery effort.