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Rebuilding Puerto Rico, As Hurricane Season Returns

Jun 2, 2018
Originally published on June 3, 2018 6:58 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're here at the start of the 2018 hurricane season. We thought this would be a good time to check in on how this island - home to some 3.4 million U.S. citizens - is doing since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit last year. And we wanted to know whether Puerto Rico is prepared for another storm.

And we're going to start the program by reminding people just how serious hurricane Maria was, how extensive the damage was. Our NPR colleague Adrian Florido was here in Puerto Rico not long after Maria hit the island. He's been reporting here full-time since the beginning of the year. He's been our guide, and he's with us now. Adrian, thank you so much for being here.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Adrian, Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, and you arrived just a couple of weeks later. We've been driving around in the last few days, and in a lot of ways, things seem almost back to normal. But remind us of what it was like back when you first got here.

FLORIDO: Well, I mean, we noticed the devastation before we even landed. There were no leaves on the trees. It was really kind of a remarkable sight. And then, at the airport, there were people camping out to buy flights because remember that there was no phone or internet reception across basically the entire island. The entire island was without power.

I remember when we drove to a city called Orocovis in the mountains. On the way there, we met people collecting water out of streams on the side of the road and health workers who were warning them about contamination because of so much wildlife that had been killed by the storm. And then, at one point, we couldn't go any further because we hit a point in the road where a landslide had blocked it off. And so we had to hitch a ride in a Humvee.

And, once we got to this little barrio that had been cut off for almost three weeks, there was an old woman there who was rationing her cancer medications because she didn't know when she would get more. Folks were dying because they couldn't get medical treatment. And there were so many homes there and across the island without roofs or even without a tarp to cover the gaping holes in their homes because the government had run out of tarps.

MARTIN: In fact, we still see those blue tarps, you know, everywhere. First, you know, you think they're swimming pools, but then you realize no - they're tarps covering the roofs. And you still see that.

FLORIDO: Right. You still see that even here in the capital.

MARTIN: Now, the focus has been on the immediate hurricane response for a long time now - you know, essentially since the hurricanes landed. But, in some ways, now it's back to reality, right?

FLORIDO: Right. I mean, there are still a lot of people with immediate needs, right? And those people cannot be forgotten about. But, in many ways, the recovery is moving on to a longer-term phase. Remember that FEMA's money - the Federal Emergency Management Agency - its money is mostly to address the immediate crisis. But now the island is getting ready for billions of dollars in more flexible federal funding that's going to start flowing in, and that should go a long way toward rebuilding homes, improving the power grid, making other really significant infrastructural improvements. So officials here hope that better times are ahead.

MARTIN: So there's a hope for, not just a return to normal, but a - you know, a move to something perhaps even stronger. But it also means that the island is having to get back to some of the problems that existed before the storm, right - namely, dealing with the debt crisis.

FLORIDO: That's right, Michel. As you know, I mean, the island is still billions of dollars in debt - more than $70 billion. And, two years ago, Congress created this federal oversight board to essentially get the island's finances in order. And, before the storm, that oversight board was getting ready to essentially issue its list of cuts that it wanted the island to make to public spending.

That process got delayed because of the storm, but it's back on track now. And, just a couple of weeks ago, they told the government they've got to cut education spending, cut pensions, cut government health benefits, cut protections for workers. It's really complicated, Michel, but a big part of this is so that the island can pay back its creditors.

MARTIN: You know, Adrian, we heard your report from just a few weeks ago when thousands of people went into the streets to demonstrate against the proposals made by the fiscal oversight board.

FLORIDO: Yeah. There was this massive protest here in San Juan's financial district, which is where the fiscal oversight board has its office. This is what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Screaming).

FLORIDO: The protest had ended chaotically, Michel, with tear gas being fired and a lot of arrests. There is a lot of resentment, both at the fiscal oversight board but also at the local government, frankly, for agreeing to implement a lot of the board's recommended cuts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.