Today marks the one-year anniversary since Hurricane Maria’s deadly direct hit on the island of Puerto Rico. The devastation to Puerto Rico’s already enfeebled infrastructure was so complete that the island’s blackout, lasting more than 9 months, ranks as the second most severe in history, following the blackout in the Philippines in super typhoon Haiyan’s wake. Like bones, infrastructure can be rebuilt and heal to the tune of more than $94 billion, proving that when it comes to climate resilience, prevention is better than cure.
Adding Puerto Rico’s eye-watering municipal dept of $73 billion to the hurricane reconstruction tab, and Puerto Rico’s economy is in the hole by 150% of GDP. Meanwhile the island’s purse strings are held by a Federally-imposed control board, for whom hospitals, schools and Puerto Rico’s admittedly bloated civil service are costs to be cut. Unsurprisingly, the outmigration from the island, whose population has been in freefall for more than a decade, only accelerated – to be replaced by crypto-utopians and mainland millionaires exploiting tax incentives. Anywhere else in the world, these disaster-displaced U.S. citizens who have moved to all 50 states, would be called internally displaced persons (IDPs) in humanitarian parlance.
Attention has rightly focused on the island’s sclerotic power utility, PREPA, one of the antagonists in the island’s drama to recover its footing. Sadly, in repairing the island’s power, Puerto Ricans have been given band-aids (Whitefish has been given $300 million), for a job that requires surgery. No strangers to being second class citizens, the greatest offence almost one year on, is the fact that Hurricane Maria’s death toll, the equivalent of Puerto Rico’s 9/11, has become a disputed political football – bandied about by the President as Democratic conspiracy even as Hurricane Florence began inundating the Carolinas.
While the official death toll stubbornly and suspiciously lingered at 64 for nearly a year after Hurricane Maria, two independent studies later (with Harvard’s adding 1,645 deaths to the total), confirmed that the toxic blend of poverty, territorial neglect and disaster response negligence would lay more than 3,000 U.S. lives at the door of the White House and on our collective consciousness. For a country whose motto is e pluribus unum – out of many, one – no American should take comfort in what transpired in Puerto Rico on this fateful day nor in the gaping holes it revealed in our national safety net.
Sadly, the calls to build back better and use Hurricane Maria’s infrastructural clean slate as an opportunity to boost Puerto Rico’s competitiveness are largely falling on deaf ears in Washington, D.C. – a city gripped by a paralyzing blend of political gridlock, point scoring and intrigue – and on empty coffers on the island. Should all be lost for Puerto Rico and should Hurricane Maria’s grim anniversary mark another decade of decline and mass exodus? Or can the world’s largest economy marshal the resources, imagination and political will not to forsake Puerto Rico, but to turn it around? Will the political will and social trade offs emerge on the island to have skin in the game? As with Detroit’s transformation or the technical financial support offered to independent nations via the World Bank or IMF, municipal and sovereign transformation is possible. In Puerto Rico’s case, the opportunities to regain economic and social stability, eventually restoring competitiveness, have much less to do with money and donations and more to do with vision.
Could Puerto Rico become the Singapore or Estonia of the Caribbean? Why not! Embracing national digital transformation will be part of the pathway. Beyond the psychological and social trauma visited on the island’s residents and the helplessness of its diaspora, part of the reason Hurricane Maria was so devastating is that the island’s infrastructure, particularly the energy matrix – like much of the world’s – was (and remains) a single point of failure. In a world without light and with a broken medical supply chain, treatable ailments become death sentences. Surely, this contributed to the sadly disputed death toll in Puerto Rico.
Similarly, the breakdown in FEMA and insurance claims and response times, which saw up to 60% of claims denied, is partly borne from the shoddy – and analog – state of Puerto Rico’s land registry, not to mention the high rates of informal housing and land parceling, particularly in poor and rural communities, which were hardest hit. A blockchain-based land registry, for example, would not only be inherently disaster-proof, it could readily connect insurance or disaster-relief claimants with the evidence needed to get support. This type “backup” land registry is not only needed in Puerto Rico, it is needed nationally and with great urgency as more and more communities learn the limitations of flood, homeowners and state-backed insurance programs in the face of extreme weather events. Often as waters rise, wild fires rage and evacuation orders are issued, the evidence and policy documents needed to initiate a slow and arduous claims process are left behind. As Puerto Rico’s long and costly recovery shows us, prevention is much better than cure. And while there was nothing that could have been done to veer Hurricane Maria off course from the ill-fated island, nor to reverse the clock on Puerto Rico’s decades-long economic decline, so much more could have been done to prevent the senseless loss of life and so much more can be done to restore Puerto Rico’s luster.