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Puerto Rico Invites A Write-Off

hurricane-damaged buildings on Puerto Rico, seen from the air
Damage on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, September 2017.
Photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos, courtesy the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Puerto Rican officials recently released a report saying that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria. Many people are upset, although few are surprised, at the revelation that the storm cost many more lives than official estimates reflected.

You may have had to look harder to find another headline about Puerto Rico a few weeks earlier, since it garnered less attention on the mainland. But that story is perhaps equally telling. Puerto Rico’s leaders submitted a report to Congress that claimed it would take $139 billion to recover from the damage Maria caused.

This is not a typo. For context, that amount represents more than 15 times the island’s annual general budget. The aid request included $33 billion for housing, $26 billion for energy projects and $15 billion for education.

All this on an island whose population has shrunk to 3.3 million. The mortality study found that around 8 percent of Puerto Ricans fled the island in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which had hit a few weeks prior. But no one is really sure exactly how many people have left. As of 2016, there were already more people of Puerto Rican origin living on the U.S. mainland than in Puerto Rico; the exodus has only sped up since the storms. So seen another way, $139 billion in aid for 3.3 million people is more than $42,000 per resident of Puerto Rico. If we were talking about a wrecked car rather than a commonwealth, it would already have been declared a total loss.

The fact that such a request was submitted to Congress is evidence in itself that the island’s government cannot and should not be put in charge of its own reconstruction. These are the same people who let their infrastructure decay to life-threatening levels on an island where hurricanes are routine; the bill for this neglect came due in all the mortality and suffering that followed last year’s storms. It would cost less to resettle every resident in the States and turn the entire island into a national park.

Puerto Rico has every right to govern itself, but it has shown no ability to do so prudently. The island mismanaged itself into bankruptcy before it was battered by hurricanes. And with the revised report, updating the estimated casualties from 64 to 2,975, the government demonstrates that it can’t even keep track of its own storm dead within a margin of error of roughly 45 to 1.

My guess is that one of three things will happen. The first is that Congress will chop the island’s Christmas list down to a level that won’t send Santa to a cardiac unit, send the reduced amount and hope for the best. Puerto Rico’s government says that about half the requested amount is already available from previous congressional allocations, Department of Housing and Urban Development grants and other sources. Assuming this is true, it is likely to get at least that much. But this leaves around $70 billion for Congress to cut partially or entirely.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the funding bills under consideration in both chambers of Congress for next year do not currently include any funding earmarked specifically for Puerto Rico, though presumably some portion of money allocated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund would go toward assisting the island. That fund, however, is not designed for the sort of long-term infrastructure projects at issue. And some lawmakers have expressed reluctance to keep writing checks when FEMA has already designated more than $13.7 billion for Puerto Rico.

The second possibility is that a federal commission will take the island’s reconstruction out of local hands entirely. Congress created an oversight board prior to the storms to help Puerto Rico manage its debt crisis, so perhaps this board could move from an advisory position to a more direct supervisory one.

The third possibility is that Puerto Rico will be largely left to fend for itself, its residents offered relocation assistance or a nominal amount of reconstruction aid.

I don’t wish any ill on anyone in Puerto Rico, or on its many thousands of evacuees who are building new lives on the mainland. All of them deserve a lot better than the awful administration they have. The least Congress can do is stop feeding money into the same wasteful furnace.

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