‘Days were lost’: Why Puerto Rico is still suffering a month after Hurricane Maria
October 19, 2017 2:17 PM
Before Hurricane Maria tore through the rest of this island, it came to Mayor Jorge Márquez’s home.
The storm ripped through improvised plastic shutters, shook the windows and sent his panicked family, including his grandchildren, scurrying to a bathroom to hide. For four hours, as the fiercest of Maria’s winds roared through his mountain town in southeast Puerto Rico, Márquez kept the wind from forcing itself in by pushing a dining table hard against the front door.
At the end, when the winds finally died down, he stepped outside to glimpse at the damage to the town he’s run for nearly two decades. Tattered roofs littered the ground. Snapped trees mangled power lines. The local hospital was lost. The town’s funeral home was gone.
The easy part of the storm was over. The real agony had yet to begin.
“Everything we’ve built over 16 years, destroyed in a single day,” he said Tuesday, pausing to fight back fresh tears.
A month has passed since Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, and the island continues to operate in emergency mode, struggling to do even the basics: save lives, protect property, provide drinking water, turn on the lights. Time ticks away in a hazy state of permanent disaster, a catastrophe born from the worst storm to cross Puerto Rico in 85 years — and of a slow recovery by the federal, state and local governments.
The blame for the unsatisfactory response, the Miami Herald and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism found, lies with bureaucracies that were unprepared for a collapsed communications system and overwhelmed by the logistical challenges of aiding an island left with no corner unharmed. Even the White House appeared indifferent to the needs of 3.4 million American citizens 1,000 miles from its shores.
Above all, strapped finances that plunged the island into an economic tailspin long before any winds arrived left the state government so thinly stretched it could not maintain its power grid or afford extensive preparations for a monster storm –– much less pay for the sort of recovery that would be demanded in the mainland U.S.
Forty-nine people died, though that’s likely a significant undercount.
Much remains to be learned about the recovery flaws Maria exposed. But disaster managers already know the historic storm —which has required more FEMA food and water distribution than any other disaster — will force them to rethink how they approach a worst-case scenario that ordinary plans were ill-equipped to deal with in the systemic breakdown that followed landfall.
“If this response had been perfect, you still would have very significant suffering and destruction, no matter what, because of the storm,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who pushed early on for more military involvement. “But I do think some days were lost.”
STRING OF CALAMITIES
The urgent call to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, whose cell phone signal had vanished, came a few hours after the strongest Maria winds had passed Sept. 20. Carlos Mercader, executive director of Puerto Rico’s federal office in Washington, got through to a working landline at the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan.
Mercader had news for the governor, obtained from a friend’s WhatsApp message: Waters were rising fast in Levittown, a suburb west of San Juan, and people were scrambling to their roofs. Among them was a local news reporter, the journalist’s editor told the governor’s press secretary at around the same time as Mercader’s call. The flooding was happening just about a dozen of miles from the governor’s mansion.
Out rushed the governor with rescue crews, including power line workers with bucket trucks.
“We were there until early morning,” Rosselló told the Miami Herald and the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, for its initials in Spanish) in an interview, recalling the first in a string of calamities that started to pile up: a rupture at the Guajataca Dam. A power blackout across 70 percent of the island’s 69 hospitals. A fuel shortage. A shutdown of airports and seaports for three days.
“This is a fluid situation that, if left unattended, could get worse,” the 38-year-old governor, who took office in January, said after nearly four weeks of living in extended crisis.
Rosselló’s public safety chief, Héctor Pesquera, had been unable to drive out of his house after the storm because his street was littered with trees. Pesquera, a former head of Miami’s FBI office, said he grabbed his briefcase and set out on foot with a flashlight in his mouth, dodging hanging branches.
The emergency operations center in Caguas, south of San Juan, had flooded and become unusable, Pesquera said. He reached a cop by phone who could give him a lift to San Juan’s convention center, which instantly became the government’s command headquarters. The drive to the convention center, usually 10 minutes long, took an hour.
Ricardo Ramos, chief executive of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, watched from the public utility’s headquarters in Miramar as Maria’s onslaught knocked out the island’s entire power grid. Then, the storm took out the utility’s computer servers, leaving the man in charge of keeping on the lights entirely in the dark.
“I didn’t have Word or email or Excel or anything,” he said. “Our emergency generator failed. Our technician offices lost their computers and flooded. The offices are now full of mice.”
A PREPA plant in the western city of Arecibo, near where Maria’s eye left the island, experienced so much flooding that employees had to climb to the chimney for safety, he said. After the storm, Ramos sent a helicopter to fly over other destroyed facilities, looking for workers to come out and wave to signal they were OK.
The local Federal Emergency Management Administration chief, Alejandro De La Campa, had bedded down — along with some 300 FEMA workers still responding to Hurricane Irma — at a Caguas warehouse. It was restocked with the standard number of provisions FEMA stored ahead of any storm, no matter its size: about 700,000 liters of water and half a million meals.
They proved to be woefully insufficient: The supplies ran out in two days.
Puerto Rico had never needed a larger emergency stash. Not much more fit in the warehouse, De La Campa told the Herald/CPI, acknowledging that a bigger building — perhaps twice as large — might now be necessary.
The only reason Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier hadn’t depleted the stores, he added, was because that storm skirted Puerto Rico and mostly hurt the island’s northern coast — meaning southern municipalities could aid their neighbors without tapping all the federal provisions.
Maria offered no such respite, affecting all of the island’s 78 municipalities and leaving the government without an intact oasis from where to stage its response.
‘CALL ME PARANOID’
Puerto Rico opened 500 emergency shelters ahead of Maria, a record number that didn’t draw many evacuees until the rains actually started and people seemed to accept the storm might really be as bad as forecast. Afterward, evacuees kept seeking shelter; at their peak, the number reached 15,000.
“They might call me paranoid,” Rosselló said. “I anticipated this could happen, and seven days before the storm, we started working on it.”
But he was still hamstrung by Puerto Rico’s measly coffers: Expenses incurred before the White House approved a Sept. 20 major disaster declaration had to be paid in full by the state, which is $72 billion in debt and under the control of a federally appointed fiscal board.
So asking other states for help before Maria, which might have lined up resources for Puerto Rico more quickly, would have been an expensive undertaking without knowing for sure what havoc the storm would wreak.
In contrast, six days before Irma hit Florida, the state filed its first request through the Emergency Mutual Aid Compact available to states and territories. Florida ultimately made 99 requests before landfall.
The number of requests Puerto Rico made before Maria: Zero.
PREPA, the bankrupt power utility, which is $9 billion in debt and locked in a court battle with its bondholders, could also have requested aid after Maria hit through the American Public Power Association, a mutual aid trade network for some 1,100 electrical utilities. Texas and Florida did after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. That’s partly how, 10 days after Irma, Florida utilities restored power to 98 percent of the 6.7 million customers who had gone dark. But PREPA didn’t tap the aid network.
Instead, Ramos chose to hire one of two companies that had answered PREPA’s request for proposals for far less restoration work after Irma, but had not yet been hired: Whitefish Energy Holdings, a small, little-known Montana firm formed only two years ago.
The other bidder, which Ramos declined to name, had demanded a $25 million payment guarantee up front, Ramos said. PREPA’s emergency fund had only $100 million, which Ramos feared would be quickly exhausted if he hired another public utility to assist with repairs.
PREPA “doesn’t have the cash to cover all the expenses,” Ramos said. “I’d have to pay it to later seek reimbursement. It’s a cash-flow problem.”
The New York Power Authority did send crews the day after the storm after Puerto Rico asked New York directly for help. Whitefish later contracted with Jacksonville’s JEA public utility and the Kissimmee Utility Authority to provide additional line workers.
PREPA also hired 60 local contractors, Ramos said, but still didn’t have enough line workers or utility trucks — and couldn’t immediately welcome more, either: The government had no gas for trucks and no food or housing for crews.
That Puerto Rico’s power grid was in precarious shape was well known. Seventy percent of PREPA customers lost power during Irma, though nearly 97 percent had been restored by the time Maria arrived two weeks later. But the newest equipment in the system is from the 1970s, Ramos said, with much of it dating back to the 1950s and ’60s, though its useful life is supposed to be 30 years. Over the past three years, the utility has lost more than two-thirds of its workers — about 2,500 people, Ramos said — as public austerity measures forced PREPA to slash benefits.
How fragile the grid remains was evidenced by the fluctuating number of Puerto Ricans who have electricity. Last Sunday, a San Juan substation temporarily failed, knocking out restored electricity in the capital’s main hospital.
A month after Maria, 78 percent of PREPA customers are still without power.
The early response centered on saving lives. FEMA provided 16 urban search-and-rescue teams. Pesquera dispatched police, firefighters and paramedics as anecdotes came in via word of mouth of flash flooding, mudslides and injuries. In Cataño. Toa Baja. Canóvanas. Ramos, the PREPA chief, ordered his crews to help people before power lines.
No one in government had a full picture of how dire things were. Before requesting federal aid, states traditionally rely on local governments to report damages. But in Puerto Rico, most mayors had only walkie-talkies — and the occasional ham radio — to communicate.
And for the first 24 hours, as Maria’s rains continued, no one could fly over the island to see the extent of the wreckage.
The morning after landfall, when the National Guard finally made it to a San Juan hangar to fetch a helicopter, they found it swept away by the storm, said Brig. Gen. Isabelo Rivera, the Guard’s adjutant general and commander. His pilots drove for four hours across blocked roads to reach another helicopter in the western city of Aguadilla. They flew it to San Juan to pick up the governor.
“I was surprised that they weren’t able to marshal the resources needed quicker to address the problem. I thought it was an inadequate response,” said P.K. “Ken” Keen, the retired three-star general who commanded the U.S. military response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
The communications blackout, he added, partly explained why. In Haiti, “the cell towers did not get destroyed in the earthquake, which was fortunate. We didn’t lose our power to the extent that happened in Puerto Rico, and the cell towers came back up that night. So were able to start using our cell phones, which was really our primary means of communications.”
In Puerto Rico, the government designated runners to drive to places outside San Juan and send information back and forth in person.
Some isolation was expected: For several days before Maria, Rosselló — following FEMA advice familiar to all Americans who live in hurricane zones — warned his citizens to prepare for 72 hours of self-sufficiency.
“There won’t be light when this happens,” he said, predicting a “general communications collapse.” “It’s possible that we will spend a significant amount of time, at least three or four days, in a blackout.”
Try five. Six. Seven. Try 30.
“Our patience is running out,” Alex de Jesús Maldonado, a 52-year-old from Bayonne, New Jersey, said two weeks after the storm in the hard-hit mountain town of Utuado, where he was helping his family find water. “This isn’t a Third World country in South America.”
De La Campa said FEMA might have to revise its guidelines to recommend that people in a massive storm’s path prepare to be without government assistance for at least a week.
“We’ll have to rethink many of the actions we take,” he said.
De La Campa, who ultimately spent three days living in the warehouse and didn’t make it to his own home and family for five days, said he realized just how bad Maria was only after the storm: He stepped outside once its worst winds subsided and saw concrete power poles — the sturdiest ones of them all — lying flat.
“That’s when you realize how catastrophic the event was,” he said.
After an emergency, the chain of command puts the governor of Puerto Rico in charge of a triumvirate of sorts, with a federal coordinating officer — De La Campa, appointed by FEMA in Washington — and a state coordinating officer, Abner Gómez, executive director of Puerto Rico’s emergency management agency, appointed by Rosselló.
By Sept. 30, Gómez would be officially replaced by Pesquera, the public safety chief who acted like Rosselló’s de facto deputy from Day One. By Oct. 11, De La Campa would be replaced by Mike Byrne, brought in after successfully coordinating FEMA’s recovery efforts for Hurricane Harvey.
In a news release, FEMA characterized the switch to Byrne as an “expansion” of the federal leadership team, a planned move that freed De La Campa to return to his regular duties as the agency’s Caribbean area director. Frustrated Puerto Ricans, and some FEMA critics within Rosselló’s administration, saw it as a tacit admission that the agency’s initial response had been lacking.
President Donald Trump, acting on a phone request from Rosselló and De La Campa, had promptly signed a major-disaster declaration so FEMA could open its checkbook. But the default cost-sharing formula requires the feds to pick up 75 percent of the tab, leaving Puerto Rico to cover the remaining 25 percent.
In Florida, that 25 percent is evenly split between the state and local governments. In Puerto Rico, neither the state nor its municipalities could bear even that much.
Whether Washington realized just how much ruin Maria had caused in Puerto Rico was unclear immediately following the storm. Federal sources insisted the White House was closely engaged in the response. But Trump spent the weekend golfing in New Jersey and tweeting about National Football League players kneeling in protest during the national anthem, diverting most of the public’s attention away from the isolated island.
It was FEMA Administrator Brock Long and White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert who appeared to finally sound the alarm in Washington on Sept. 25 — five days after Maria’s landfall — following a Puerto Rico visit in which they flew over the stricken island. They got an earful from state leaders, in private, about the slow federal response. In public, Rosselló warned of a “humanitarian crisis” that could lead to a “mass exodus.”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Long admitted in a news conference back in Washington. “We realize that Maria was 1 mile per hour from being a Category 5 storm, but it’s the worst Puerto Rico has seen. It’s been very complex for us to respond, from a logistical nature of the island.”
The next day, the White House took the extraordinary step of amending its disaster declaration to cover 100 percent of Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery costs for six months.
A CRIPPLED NATIONAL GUARD
The most immediate military response came from the Puerto Rican National Guard, which activated its 8,000 available members. But only 4,500 could report to duty.
More than a thousand work as civilian first responders and weren’t called up. About 1,000 more had already moved to the mainland, fleeing the island’s high unemployment rate. Others lost property in the storm or couldn’t reach their bases, and stayed home until they secured supplies for their families and the roads were cleared, said Rivera, the National Guard commander.
“Maria treated us all the same,” he said.
It took three days to get in touch with all his soldiers, he added. At least 1,300 soldiers from other states’ National Guard eventually arrived to help.
Rivera, whose former office was damaged by Maria, moved into a tiny room with no air conditioning at a National Guard hangar in San Juan. He could work out of the frigid convention center command across the street, but instead chooses to go there only once a day, for a dawn meeting with Rosselló and other key disaster managers.
That’s kept Rivera unusually out of the spotlight, despite his high rank. He attributes his low profile in part to his position as an early, private FEMA critic. The agency claimed it had supplies that weren’t getting out, while Rivera insisted he had soldiers ready to go but no provisions to haul.
To bolster military aid, the Navy said Sept. 26 it would deploy the USNS Comfort, a floating hospital, from Norfolk, Virginia, to San Juan — a five-day journey that couldn’t begin immediately because the ship wasn’t ready to sail.
The feds had discussed sending the Comfort sooner, about three days after the storm, federal sources said, but backed off. One source attributed the delay to a communications mix-up with Rosselló’s administration. Another source said Puerto Rico worried it might have to pay for the expensive ship. But generators powering the island’s hospitals kept crashing, and eventually no one could justify keeping the Comfort away.
Yet sending the ship only helped with one problem. Sen. Rubio arrived with the Coast Guard on the same day as Long and Bossert and concluded the island had a bigger challenge: distributing the aid piling up at partially reopened airports and seaports.
Maria ruined trucks and turned truck drivers into storm victims. Even if both had been available, the fuel shortage — successfully resolved by the state — and number of impassable roads made transportation difficult. Rubio urged turning over supply distribution to the military, a request he said in retrospect should have been made earlier. Some members of Rosselló’s administration bristled.
“No governmental organization likes to admit that their needs outstrip their capacity,” Rubio told the Herald/CPI. “Even the government itself became a victim of the storm, in many ways. … The logistical capacity of the government was compromised.”
THE ARMY STEPS UP
On Sept. 27 — a week after landfall — the Pentagon tasked Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan with overseeing military relief operations on land.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” Buchanan said three days after arriving.
He’d flown in from California, where he oversaw the response to rampant wildfires. Despite helping run the land response in Texas after Hurricane Harvey and in Florida after Irma, Buchanan told the Herald/CPI he did not expect the critical situation facing Puerto Rico, especially its hospitals.
Despite the worrying reports from his people on the ground, Trump and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke downplayed the magnitude of the disaster. Duke carelessly said at a White House news conference that the Maria response was a “good news story.” That ignited the fury of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a potential Rosselló reelection challenger.
“When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story,” a stunned Cruz told CNN. “When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story.”
Trump launched into an extended media feud with with Cruz, whom he called “nasty.” He also implied Puerto Ricans — who had been trimming trees, fashioning makeshift water pipes and tying up dangling power cables themselves — were lazy.
“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” Trump tweeted. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”
Trump eventually visited Puerto Rico on Oct. 3, spending four hours in San Juan in which he said Maria hadn’t been a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He cheerfully tossed paper towels to refugees in a Guaynabo shelter. Ten days later, he tweeted that the feds can’t keep helping Puerto Rico “forever.”
Buchanan conceded some criticism of the federal government’s Maria response was valid.
“If you are here waiting for help, you are not patient,” he said. “And you shouldn’t be patient.”
Initially, Gov. Rosselló and PREPA chief Ramos initially estimated restoring power — a crucial step toward returning to normalcy — and hardening the grid would take half a year.
About a week after the storm, the White House had charged the Army Corps of Engineers with rebuilding the system. “That help is very welcome because of our liquidity issue,” Ramos said.
But PREPA’s contractor, Whitefish, is still working, parallel to the Corps. And Ramos has hired a second contractor, Power Secure, to speed things up, he said: “The Corps of Engineers process moves slowly.”
Under daily fire in local media from Puerto Ricans increasingly impatient about the prolonged darkness, Rosselló and Ramos unveiled a more aggressive restoration timeline on Oct. 14, pledging 95 percent of customers will have power by Dec. 15 — nearly three months after Maria’s landfall.
The announcement came after FEMA fronted PREPA $128 million for emergency work. The agency had already given the utility $213 million to cover Maria costs.
On Monday, FEMA and the Army Corps inked a $240 million contract with Fluor, a major Texas-based firm, to lead the Puerto Rico project. The Corps had previously hired a Pennsylvania company, Weston Solutions, for $35 million to focus on bringing back San Juan’s Palo Seco power plant.
For a taxpayer-funded federal agencies, disbursing such significant funds takes time, local FEMA head De La Campa said.
“We’re talking about a lot of money,” he said. “Our agency has to be fiscally responsible.”
In addition to the feds, state and military, some of the response fell on 78 local mayors, a colorful and politically powerful group whose members — depending on the day — praised, prodded or pleaded with their various government counterparts.
Neither the state nor military had enough manpower to organize distribution points for residents to directly obtain supplies, as the National Guard did in the Florida Keys after Irma. So FEMA delivered food — in many cases, meager rations of chips, candy and other unhealthful options — and water into regional staging areas and tasked the mayors with picking up and distributing them.
But not every mayor had adequate trucks — or, apparently, good intentions. The FBI is investigating five mayors suspected of hoarding provisions or offering them to political cronies.
Still, Mayor Márquez of Maunabo, the mountain town of about 12,000 people, defended the mayors as the storm’s most effective responders.
“If anything collapsed in this, it was the government,” said Márquez, a member of the opposition Popular Democratic Party. “We wouldn’t have survived this if it hadn’t been for the municipalities.”
He credited his employees and residents with clearing the roads. He hired truck and tractor owners as emergency contractors, even though the town, also hit by state budget cuts, can’t pay them for now.
“Everything is on loan until FEMA can pay,” he said.
Seven hundred of his residents requested blue roof tarps from FEMA, but only 58 came in last week, the mayor said. He set up a makeshift hospital inside the police station, a conference room turned into an emergency room and outfitted with a couple of hospital beds, several fans and a cot. A funeral director and embalmer who lost his storefront moved in temporarily into an empty building across the street.
“WE’RE OPEN,” read a sign out front.
Soldiers bring the town’s food and water share every morning from the regional staging area in Ceiba. Workers start their distribution at 8 a.m. in a local baseball stadium. Everything usually runs out by noon. Food is scarce and goes first — on Tuesday, they were out by 10 a.m.
“People ask for bread. And for baby formula. And for adult Pampers,” said Luis Lafuente, a mayoral aide.
At this moment, on Day 27, he couldn’t give them any of it.
Sosa Pascual reports for Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI), which worked jointly with the Miami Herald on this report. McClatchy correspondent Tim Johnson contributed from Utuado, Puerto Rico.