With so much of Puerto Rico utterly destroyed by Hurricane Maria, rebuilding costs will be far more than the island can bear. Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

One month after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico—the worst storm to hit the island in more than 80 years—human suffering continues amid a deepening debt crisis. With hurricane recovery costs alone estimated to reach as high as $95 billion, with an estimated 80 percent of the island still without power and 30 percent without clean water, the question of where that money comes from remains unanswered.

Puerto Rico certainly does not have the funds. The damage costs might amount to almost the island’s annual gross domestic product, approximately $103 billion. Puerto Rico also faces more than $70 billion in debt. In May, it filed for a historic debt restructuring option, equivalent to bankruptcy protection. This was before Maria devastated the island on September 20, adding to its multi-billion dollar financial burden. Puerto Rico’s Treasury Secretary Raul Maldonado has requested $6 billion to $8 billion in immediate aid from Congress to avoid a government shutdown by the month’s end.

The House of Representatives has authorized a federal disaster aid package with a $5 billion loan to Puerto Rico included in the mix. The aid package also includes $16 billion in debt relief for the National Flood Insurance Program, in stark contrast to the much smaller loan amount earmarked for the debt-ridden island territory. This disaster relief funding still awaits approval by the Senate.

Rep. José E. Serrano (D-NY), writing in The Hill on Wednesday, urged Congress to commit to a sustained effort to help rebuild Puerto Rico. He called the $5 billion loan included in the House disaster aid package “a decent temporary measure,” adding, “much more will be necessary to bring Puerto Rico back to normalcy.”

Normalcy, however, is a slippery concept. Puerto Rico’s outdated and now destroyed electric grid will need to be rebuilt entirely. Many predict a large percentage of the island’s population will leave and not return, an acceleration of the population drain that has been sapping the island for years. And storms like Maria are expected to get even more damaging and more costly as climate change raises sea levels and warms oceans.

“Puerto Rico today is a living, breathing, suffering symbol of climate injustice,” Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE and steering committee co-chair of Climate Justice Alliance, said in a press release. “The devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Maria is the culmination of centuries of colonialism, extraction, and repression. As Puerto Rico rebuilds, it must revolutionize the society’s decaying systems of survival by confronting the dominant political and financial institutions that have profited from this decay.”

The island’s predicament is exactly the scenario that has prompted coastal communities to look ahead at potential destruction and plan for mitigation. Coastal communities in California, including the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, have decided to sue the fossil fuel industry for its role in global warming to pay to protect its infrastructure and people. Miami, facing inundation by rising seas, is turning to its taxpayers in a historic referendum championed by its Republican mayor.  

At the moment, Puerto Rico’s only lifeline is money from the federal government, which has often seemed like a tenuous lifeline as President Trump has several times threatened to back away from the battered U.S. territory. House Speaker Paul Ryan pledged that Congress will remain committed to the island’s recovery. In a visit to Puerto Rico last week, he told the media that “we are all in this with each other for the long haul to make sure that this island survives.”

Still, the amount of money and resources it will take to rebuild is staggering.

“Puerto Rico will need the equivalent to a ‘Marshall Plan’,” said Edwin Melendez, executive director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro) at Hunter College.

Former executive branch officials agree that it will take a long-term effort from the federal government to fund the massive recovery work ahead.

“Rebuilding Puerto Rico to enable economic recovery will require tens of billions of dollars in new capital investment, and that is only possible with substantial new multi-year resources from the U.S. federal government,” Jason S. Miller, nonresident senior fellow at Brookings Institute, wrote in a recent post. Miller led White House efforts to address debt crisis in Puerto Rico as former deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the National Economic Council under President Obama.

David Paulison, former FEMA director during the George W. Bush administration, said funding will have to come from multiple sources. “It’s going to take years…I think it’s going to take a combination of federal dollars, state dollars from Puerto Rico itself, and also from the private sector.”

Paulison also said care is needed in how to spend the money.

“I think we as a country have to step back and say the way we’re spending money on disasters is not sustainable,” he said. “We need to start spending more money on the pre-disaster side to stop the damage from happening.” Paulison cited the example of Florida changing its building codes following Hurricane Andrew. “There are many efficient efforts we can do that will reduce the expenditures on the backside of a hurricane,” he said. “That’s something we’ll need to look it, how we’re spending our money and are we spending it wisely or not.”

The call for a just and sustainable recovery for Puerto Rico is at the center of a new campaign led by Climate Justice Alliance, UPROSE, and several other grassroots environmental justice organizations. The Our Power Puerto Rico campaign launched last week with a rally in New York City and delivery of petitions to representatives in Washington.

These advocates are demanding Congress pass an immediate Just Recovery and Relief Aid Package for Puerto Rico that includes full debt relief, a transparent decision-making process for distribution of resources, a complete infrastructure assessment, review of zoning codes and ordinances for development, and other actions to address environmental justice concerns.

“We as Puerto Ricans and people of color in the U.S.A. need to stand up in solidarity and work side-by-side with the people of Puerto Rico towards a just recovery and a sustainable, resilient rebuild that prioritizes autonomy, food sovereignty, climate and social justice, respect to the Mother Earth, and the human rights of all people in the island,” added Jovanna Garcia Soto, solidarity program officer for Latin America at Grassroots International.

Melendez said Puerto Rico nonprofits are fundraising for the recovery, and the Puerto Rican community on the U.S. mainland has stepped up. “The diaspora is involved in the fundraising,” he said. “But these are long-term initiatives, and I hope we can sustain the efforts over the long period of time that it’s going to take to rebuild Puerto Rico.”