Puerto Rico update

October 16, 2017

Puerto Rico update, 16 Oct 2017:  As the daily struggle for food and water persists, President Trump threatened to cut off federal support to the U.S. territory on Thursday. After intense backlash, Trump reversed himself on Friday, offering renewed pledges of assistance.  The federal government has dedicated more than 19,000 personnel to emergency response efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to FEMA. Yet, even if all those workers were sent to Puerto Rico alone, they could only provide about half the necessary food and water, according to an analysis by researchers at University of California, Davis, described on Undark.  For more on “what we can do” and “what works” — is already working and where, already — see rapidshift.net.

Ed Morales’ report on Puerto Rico in The Nation:

As Donald Trump’s rule-by-disinformation strategy intensifies, three weeks after Hurricane Maria, a reeling Puerto Rico is becoming more of a sideshow for his callous stereotyping and ruthlessness. He is subjecting the island’s citizens to layers of anguish, at once revealing the resourcefulness of a sturdy rural culture and the banality of government by public relations. Puerto Ricans, meanwhile, are suffering that all-too-human affliction: the desperate need to connect.

One of the enduring images from Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria is people crowded together near outposts of cable or wireless companies, trying to get a signal so they can communicate. By now most people know that their friends and loved ones have survived; that they may in some cases have water but almost never electricity; that they may need precious medications, or may have stood on line at their local pharmacy for hours to get them; that they may have lost all or part of the roof to their home. Survivors have seen their neighborhoods strewn with the carcasses of dead trees, discarded mattresses and refrigerators; have spent hours trying to get cash out of the few working ATMs in their area or — now a less common complaint — waiting in a gas line.

Sustaining contact on an island littered with fallen power lines and cell-phone towers is difficult, and it contributes to a pervasive feeling of disconnection and chaos. This island is full of people suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine finally reaching the remote mountaintop home of a close friend or relative, who sits there with a municipal government–issued packet of crackers, applesauce and bottled water, looking up at you watery-eyed and saying, “I was wondering whether you even wanted to talk to me anymore.”…

And meanwhile, lest the story of Puerto Rico appear too abstract:

Pence’s visit had the unpleasant effect of throwing metro-area traffic into complete chaos, prompting the closure of the Baldorioty Expressway, which is something like Manhattan’s FDR Drive. With all surrounding avenues closed, I was forced to drive back toward Old San Juan, which is still without electricity (as opposed to Condado, where billionaire hedge-funder John Paulson has bought the area’s most luxurious hotel). Driving south toward Rio Piedras in the hopes of avoiding traffic, I encountered flash floods that made Avenida Muñoz Rivera a one-lane lake. Pushing on to the old Route 3 on the way back east to the rain forest, a feeling of dread overtook me as I realized that night had fallen and thousands of cars were surging along highways with stoplights that didn’t work.

Amazingly, the anxious civility that has permeated the island kept us all safe, and I maneuvered the painstaking miles through a torrent of headlights, fading cell signals, flooded roadways and yawning potholes. The landscape had become an unrecognizable blur of fallen trees, twisted highway signs and mangled electrical wires. Landmarks had become distorted and useless, while entire communities that had been previously invisible now emerged, ghostlike. There was no light anywhere, just a full moon that seemed to swallow all of Route 66….

In his sociological classic, Deciding What’s News, published in 1979, Herbert J. Gans itemized what he called “enduring news values” — the unwritten, often unthought elements of a story that elevate it to prominence. Disasters loomed large in his accounting. Some disasters are social, some are natural, but all represent violent breaks from what came before. The rupture is, by definition, a sign of the extraordinary. Something has been torn asunder. The event can be pinpointed, assigned a who, a what, a where and a when, if not a why. So later we can speak of “after Vietnam” and “after Charlottesville,” with the place-name doubling as the time when a specific, bounded experience “took place.”

Gans noted, too, that after a time — usually no more than a few days — the emphasis in the reporting of a disaster shifts from the damage caused to the restoration of order. The restoration of order is not necessarily a happy ending but it’s a happier one, an exercise in not only social but mental management. It affords a sense of what we have come to call closure. The streets are drained, the rubble cleaned up, the National Guard withdrawn, the patients moved from the dysfunctional hospital, the surviving victims outfitted with their prostheses. We can move on.

But there are millions who can’t move on. Thus Ed Morales’ sum-up of the financial situation after Hurricane Maria: “…the relief designated for Puerto Rico comes in the form of roughly $5 billion in loans…a cruel joke for a territory already drowning in debt.”

One rupture of order follows another. Don’t expect order to be restored. All systems failed. That is the story. It must be told, and refreshed, and followed, and followed anew.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of sixteen books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.


From NCRonline.org, by Marie Venner, 9 Oct 2017

Rescue workers help people Sept. 20 in Guayama, Puerto Rico, after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria. (CNS /Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters)

By now, many are likely familiar with the litany of environmental disasters that accompany climate change, or what some believe is more appropriately described as “climate breakdown.”

Great change or disaster, such as the recent hurricanes ravaging the Caribbean and Gulf Coast communities, also presents an opportunity about new paths to rebuilding — at least for those not weighted by the primary needs of securing food, water and electricity, assuring loved ones are safe, and getting back to work, among a million other immediate concerns in such situations.

As the wider community, maybe it is our job to provide this space and support for it.

What may be less known is that organizations like the International Energy Association have determined that to avoid average global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius — the primary global warming limit targeted in the Paris Agreement — we cannot continue to build and invest in infrastructure (power plants, cars, etc.) based on fossil fuels. Six years ago, IEA estimated that infrastructure in place by 2017 would already be sufficient to take the world past the 2 degrees mark, a point at which climate scientists predict climate impacts, such as increased flooding, droughts and intensified storms, may become irreversible.

Such fossil fuel-based investments could be especially immoral where we have good alternatives, such as energy infrastructure rebuilding in Puerto Rico now, or future new car purchases.

There is a responsibility to preserve life and generators will help that occur, but at the same time, a large investment in clean infrastructure for the long term needs to begin now.

Hurricane Maria and this month of Mary also bring to mind the Magnificat. The Magnificat emerged as Mary was confronted by extreme change in her circumstances, reflection on which led to the shared moral clarity recounted in the liturgy of the hours, over the centuries since. Things will not and should not go back to the way they were.

Those of us who work in infrastructure, public sector development, impacts of technological disruption and climate action (or all of the above) see change coming. And we are often tempted to think “in some reasonable period of time.” In fact, an abrupt shift away from fossil fuels is necessary, desirable and urgent. Life will be much better as soon as we do.

I have seen the temptation in many contexts to go to (and try to guess or project, usually incorrectly) what seems feasible within the existing system, rather than consider what is possible or moral, in a broader context. The Spirit is alive, and more than we thought is possible. And Hurricane Maria reminds us that we must engage that here and now. The Magnificat urges us to think of the kingdom in the present time and ponder its connection to us and our responsibilities:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

Might we be on the cusp of a new system of development? Are we responsible, as Christians, for bringing about a new, just system? We are not here to comfort ourselves but to apply our skills to bringing about the kingdom and abundant life for all. We pick up God’s charge that things can and must be different. As dangerous, even life-threatening, as the situation may be, we have a God of surprises.

Now is the time for metanoia and the path that will bring good news to all. We cannot rebuild or continue as we were. Hurricane Maria help us focus on how “the time is now.”

We must take responsibility, though, for community well-being. In the wake of natural disasters such as Maria, Irma and Harvey, aid should be provided in central locations as long as it’s needed, along with meals, water, shelter, electricity and connectivity. Provision of microgrids that can contribute to the grid or operate independently (solar panels plus batteries to store that power for all churches, schools, hospitals and community centers) would also be appropriate.

Already there are signs of hope that such a rebuild isn’t just a dream but can become reality. Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla, is talking with the governor of Puerto Rico about how the island may rebuild its power grid with solar power and battery storage.

@elonMusk Let’s talk. Do you want to show the world the power and scalability of your ? PR could be that flagship project. https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/915939199718531072 

I would be happy to talk. Hopefully, Tesla can be helpful.

We are interconnected and we take responsibility as Catholics for our brothers and sisters to live. The federal government also has a primary role in ensuring the life, safety and the well-being of its citizens, including the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans, all of whom are American citizens. Rebuilding can and will be the responsibility of the U.S., as it was during past hurricanes, such as the devastating storms that hit the island territory in the midst of the Great Depression.

So what are the specifics needed toward rebuilding on that island today?

In addition to microgrids, Puerto Rican communities need time, space and support to imagine how things should be, now and in the future, as they rebuild. Could each Catholic parish in Puerto Rico be matched with multiple parishes in the U.S. to partner in responding to the needs and opportunities at hand? We have models in our Catholic tradition — cooperatives and more — oriented to care of the common good and our common home.

Pope Francis reminds us in his encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” that we should “not delay” in our transition to a fossil-free world.

After the recent series of hurricanes, and especially in Puerto Rico, it is probably a good time to discuss or rediscover the basics of what people need, as well as what we can share, and the individual assets and gifts we bring to the table.

Matched parishes would not only have a chance to give and support, but to be an extended family, sharing love and responsibility. It would present a chance to journey together on a path where we learn from each other.

We hear the Word: The Almighty has done great things and lifts up the lowly.

Now is the time to live out and bring about the change we need.

Marie Venner is a researcher, leader in the infrastructure sector and former public servant. She can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].