As Hurricane Maria brewed in the Atlantic Ocean last fall, Puerto Rico officials worried.
“The plans were not updated. The citizens were not ready. The government agencies were not ready. Private companies were not prepared,” said Carlos Acevedo, head of the island’s emergency management agency. “Puerto Rico was prepared to be able to face an emergency situation of a Category 1 hurricane, maybe a Category 2.”
But by the time Hurricane Maria made landfall near Yabucoa, it was a powerful Category 4 with sustained winds up to 154 mph. The swirling storm — the size an area larger than Puerto Rico — cut across the island, causing power blackouts and a communications-system collapse.
The island remains crippled to this day: Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans still don’t have roofs and its already-struggling economy hasn’t recovered, according to the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. And despite claims that 100% of power has been restored on the island, many residents are still living in the dark.
WUFT’s Grace King spoke with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló about where responsibility lies and the ongoing recovery efforts.
Q: How much responsibly do you take for the issues that are still ongoing due to Hurricane Maria?
A: Well, I am the governor. I assume responsibility. It’s my job to make sure that all of the needs of the people of Puerto Rico are met. It is an unprecedented event and we certainly have to work with several stakeholders, including the federal government, not-for-profits and so forth. But as governor, it is my job to make sure I find a way, whether it’s a traditional way or a creative way, to make sure that those resources get here. So I assume responsibility. It’s my job, and that’s why I am fully committed that — notwithstanding all of the obstacles and the challenges — to make this rebuild one that really puts Puerto Rico in a very positive position.
Q: How are the recovery efforts going?
A: It’s been a long recovery. In certain key performance indicators, we’re now starting to reach a position where we can pivot, you know, essentially 100% of the energy — or close to 100% of the energy — is restored. Of course schools are working, and so forth. Business is back on its feet, tourism is even higher than it was before the storm. So now is the rebuild, which is the one we should be getting started on now, and that’s the one I’m really optimistic about — and hopefully we can do it much quicker than was the recovery.
Q: How confident are you that the changes you make will be sufficient?
A: They have to be. Right? And that’s why we wanted to be a blank canvas. Whether it’s this year or next year or in five years or ten years, another storm is likely to hit, so we better be very resilient about it. And what we’re doing is, we’re incorporating the concept of innovation, the broad concept of innovation across the board in everything. So our effort right now is to plan for what we conceive as the worst-case scenario so that we can respond in kind. But I am confident we’ll get significantly much better and we’ll be prepared for this level.
Q: We’ve been to Yabucoa, Utuado, Trujillo Alto, Vega Baja, among other places, and we’ve seen people who are still suffering and don’t have basic necessities. What’s your message to them?
A: It’s very frustrating for me. I mean, we’ve been trying to reach everybody. We’ve been bogged down by inexplicable bureaucracy in some fronts on the federal level and, you know, bureaucracy knows no pain. So, what we’re — what I’m committed in doing and what we work 24 hours a day on doing is — trying to identify all of the folks that are in dire need. You know, as I mentioned, there are some things that are almost completely back to normal or even better than normal now. But there are some other things that are still significantly delayed — such as rooftops. We still have about 60,000 people that don’t have rooftops and that’s just no way to live. My expectation is that we should be getting the draw downs for the CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funding, which is $1.5 billion. About 70 percent of that goes to housing needs, so hopefully where other efforts have failed, getting access to this funding can enable us to rebuild quickly those homes.
Q: Part of that rebuilding is that some people don’t have property titles to their homes. In April, you met with Secretary Ben Carson at the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, and you said that you wanted to help those people get federal assistance. What actions have been taken toward that?
A: We drafted and submitted and got approved an action plan that has several components that allows us to start making that transition so that folks that have informal housing can have formal housing or those that just don’t have the documents can get it. Many of these situations are land that has been family-owned for decades, if not a century and, you know, the paper(work) was lost. So we’re getting funding now to help identify those areas and to help them get their title, No. 1; No. 2, we’re creating a GIS (Geographic Information System)-type system. We don’t have all of the properties fully registered, and therefore we don’t have the visibility towards them. So now this effort, as we go formalizing some of the informal housing and giving people their titles, we will also have visibility so we can respond better after the storm. But we would like to add one last caveat to that and that is making sure that people that are in dangerous areas can transition to safer areas. So we’re doing the construction codes, the mapping of flooding areas and trying to get communities that were really affected by the storm to consider possibly moving elsewhere.
Q: What’s the death toll from Hurricane Maria?
A: We’re awaiting a study from George Washington University, but the total’s going to be very high. There are some studies that have pegged it between 800 to 8,000. That’s a wide range. There have been others that have narrowed it down to anywhere from 1,400 to about 2,500. So somewhere there. And what we want to do is give clarity to that number, give as much scientific certainty to it, and most importantly, learn what we can do better for next occasions so that we can respond more effectively. The heart of the study is evaluating what things can be done better. You know, for communication, for public health, health preparedness, for an immediate response if another storm comes to Puerto Rico. What we’re going to do is not only for Puerto Rico, but really for anywhere else in the world — and in our nation, to have a better grasp of how to respond when everything falls out and to make sure that people’s lives are safe.
Q: If you had to grade your performance as governor during this process, A to F, what would you give yourself?
A: I let others do the grading. All I can say is that I haven’t stopped working, and I think I’ve made some very good decisions. I think I’ve made some mistakes, and I’ve owned up to them. And that’s part of the process. And my commitment is on those good decisions, try to make them better, even better toward the future; and on the mistakes, try to fix them so that I can learn from them and we can be better as a people for it.
Q: What has this experience taught you about the people living on the island?
A: As we’ve talked about, there’s been many challenges. But the thing that I’m proudest of is the resolve and resiliency and heart of the people of Puerto Rico. Two storms hit Puerto Rico. It was Irma, and it was Maria two weeks afterwards. I’ve seen their willingness to help others and to withstand situations quite frankly other jurisdictions wouldn’t withstand. So, being almost a year without energy, having months without access to water, being perhaps over a year without a rooftop — and seeing people that had devastation of their own to deal with helping others that were in a most vulnerable position, I think that what it has taught me and what it has taught the world is that the people of Puerto Rico are very special and very strong and very resilient.