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5 ways Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Tropical Storm Dorian skirted Puerto Rico’s western corner on Wednesday, before heading north towards Florida, where it is expected to develop into a Category 3 hurricane. While the storm spared Puerto Rico of much damage, it raised attention to how the island is still in recovery mode — and ill-equipped for another natural disaster.

Hurricane Irma struck Puerto Rico in early September 2017. Two weeks later, on September 20, Hurricane Maria made landfall in the municipality of Yabucoa. When the debris settled, almost 3,000 people were dead, thousands more were displaced, and the island’s already aging infrastructure was severely weakened. The island’s antiquated power grid, which had been neglected for years, took an especially hard blow. Immediately after the storm, at least 1.5 million people were left without electricity, some for almost a year, casting the island into the longest blackout in U.S. history.

Efforts to rebuild the island have been slow, stymied by a mixture of colonial exploitation, government bureaucracy, partisan politics, civil unrest, and a president who’d rather blame Puerto Rico for inconveniencing him with another hurricane rather than providing actual leadership.

Making things even more volatile, just last month, former Governor Ricardo Rosselló stepped down following massive protests that called for his resignation. An unelected fiscal control board continues to run the island’s finances, implementing severe austerity measures in an effort to pay back the island’s roughly $70 billion debt.

As Puerto Ricans prepare themselves for another hurricane season, under shifting local leadership and in a world with increasingly unstable weather, here are five numbers that highlight just how vulnerable Hurricane Maria left the island:

$139 billion in damages

That’s how much former Governor Ricardo Rosselló estimated it would cost, in a report he filed to congress last August, for the island to fully recover from Hurricane Maria and Irma’s destruction. The former governor sought money from the federal government as well as foundations, other nonprofits, and Puerto Rico’s general budget to help cover this hefty cost. The federal government allocated not even half of that, only $42.6 billion, for rebuilding efforts, according to federal data. And Puerto Rico has received only $13.8 billion so far.

30,000 blue tarps

According to Rosselló’s report, approximately 90 percent of the island’s nearly 1.23 million households asked for relief and housing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency immediately after Hurricane Maria. Seventy-eight percent of those households experienced damage to their home’s structure. FEMA provided blue tarps to residents whose roofs had been torn off by the storm, and today, the tarps are still widely visible on the island. Around 30,000 households still take shelter under these tarps instead of permanent roofs, AP reporter Danica Coto told PBS Newshour this week.

470,000 fewer people

While Puerto Rico’s population was declining long before Hurricane Maria made landfall, the storm accelerated an exodus of people moving off the island, many to the United States mainland. According to a report by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, between the time right before the storms to the end of this year, Puerto Rico may lose more than 470,000 residents, or 14 percent of its total population. This depopulation has severe impacts on the island’s economy, causing a shortage of school-aged children, an aging population, as well as a loss of the island’s most educated people in a phenomenon known as “brain drain.” According to Roselló’s report, this continuing loss has “added to the stress on [Puerto Rico’s] economy and created a shortage of professional workers in many sectors.”

2.4 million trees needed

It is estimated that Hurricane Maria and Irma damaged anywhere between 20-40 million trees, causing serious environmental harm. In his recovery plan, Rosselló said at least 2.4 million trees needed to be replanted throughout the island to undo many of these negative impacts, including landslides which he said had increased by the “tens of thousands,” as well as serious threats to ecosystems. According to a 2018 report by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the damage to Puerto Rico’s forests had far-reaching effects:

Trees stabilize soil on slopes with their roots. The loss of trees, plus the accumulation of downed branches, can contribute to landslides, debris flows, and increased erosion. Those problems can, in turn, lead to poor water quality in streams and rivers where excess sediments build up.

24% of communities with poor communication

During Hurricane Maria, many people couldn’t call 911 because both cell and landline services weren’t working, and they couldn’t be reached by family members on the mainland who were trying to help. As of last June, 24 percent of municipalities on the island reported that half or less of their community still did not have cell phone or landline coverage. As of this week, according to the New York Times, “the government has not purchased the technology that would allow a 911 dispatcher to pinpoint a caller’s location, and has not replaced the dozens of dispatchers who have quit and left the island since 2017, according to Aramis Cruz, president of the local union.”

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5 ways Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria

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Why FEMA isn’t prepared for the next major U.S. disaster

According to every climate prediction model, our rapidly warming world is slated to experience more frequent and severe weather-related disasters. But according to a new investigation from E&E News, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is woefully unprepared for future catastrophes after misspending billions of dollars and countless hours of staff time on relatively minor disaster recovery efforts.

FEMA workers are an important resource for states in the wake of a disaster. They do everything from rescuing survivors to coordinating recovery efforts to providing emergency food and shelter. But they’re not for every occasion: The agency is only supposed to step in and supplement recovery efforts only when a disaster exceeds a state’s ability to cope. But according to the E&E article, FEMA tied up many of its key staffers’ time by responding to small-scale disasters such as undersized floods, storms and other events that states had the ability to bankroll themselves.

The total cost of that unnecessary aid? $3 billion.

For example, after July floods hit West Virginia — a state that was amassing over a billion dollars in budget surplus — FEMA not only staffed centers for residents to get emergency aid but provided 469 grants while the centers were open. And in 2017, FEMA responded to storms in Oklahoma that amounted to about $5 million in damage, while the state had over $450 million budget surplus.

FEMA helping out states hit by minor incidents may not sound like a terrible thing, but as a result of the misspending, E&E found that the agency failed to properly respond to the needs of communities hard-hit by major disasters, including Hurricane Maria. When Maria pummeled Puerto Rico two years ago FEMA was really not prepared. The U.S. territory’s disaster assistance progressed at a glacial pace, with the island not getting its first recovery center until Oct. 21, 2017 — a month after the hurricane, according to E&E News.

“FEMA is dying a death by 1,000 cuts,” Brock Long, former FEMA administrator, told E&E News. Long says that prior to Harvey, the agency already didn’t have enough emergency response staff to deploy. “We were out in the field staffing too many small to medium disasters.”

Making matters worse, when Governors (often) overestimate the costs of their states’ disaster recovery and get more FEMA funds than they need, there are no consequences.

The good news (and I use the word “good” loosely) is FEMA knows it has a problem. Last year, FEMA acknowledged that its disaster workforce “is historically over-committed to smaller disasters,” ultimately shrinking the agency’s capacity to prepare and respond to catastrophes.

In an effort to tackle this, FEMA administrators said they wanted to function as more of a block-grant agency, meaning it would be forced to prioritize disaster responses within a fixed budget. The agency also announced that rather than deploy its own staff for all disasters, it would reimburse states for minor disaster recovery — meaning states would need to buff up their own emergency response teams rather than relying on the federal agency to spearhead efforts.

But according to E&E, that policy has largely failed. FEMA is now facing a major staffing shortage at a time when the hurricane and wildfire seasons are about to hit their peaks. The agency currently has about 3,600 available emergency workers compared to about 6,000 at the same time two years ago — just before Hurricane Harvey hit. According to E&E, nearly three-quarters of the agency’s disaster workforce is currently tied up — meaning they are either assigned other disasters or on vacation.

“I cannot continue to send staff out to do every disaster for $2 million,” said former FEMA administrator Long during Senate Hearings last year. “The nation needs me to be ready to go for the Marias and the Harveys and Irmas.”

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Why FEMA isn’t prepared for the next major U.S. disaster

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Puerto Rico swears in third governor in less than a week

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Puerto Rico swears in third governor in less than a week

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A former coal lobbyist is Puerto Rico’s new governor … for now

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A former coal lobbyist is Puerto Rico’s new governor … for now

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Protests grow as millions demand resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor

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Protests grow as millions demand resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor

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With hurricane season looming, Trump is blocking relief funds and mocking Puerto Rico

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In the two hurricane seasons since Donald Trump was elected president, the United States was hit by five major hurricanes, including Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. In the immediate aftermath of the record-breaking storm, Trump accused the mayor of San Juan of “poor leadership” and suggested Puerto Ricans weren’t doing enough to help themselves. Nearly two years later, Trump is still criticizing Puerto Rico with misleading descriptions of what has transpired since the storm.

His disdain for the island and its leadership has bled into a fight in the Senate over disaster relief for victims of the 2018 hurricane season.

Since March, Congress has been working on an aid package to assist victims of recent floods, wildfires, and hurricanes. Last October, the first Category 5 hurricane since 1992’s Hurricane Andrew made landfall near Mexico Beach in the Florida Panhandle. Seven months, 59 deaths, and $25 billion in damage later, Congress has yet to send a relief package to the Floridians affected by the storm. Lawmakers haven’t been able to agree on a finalized deal because Republicans, following Trump’s lead, have rejected measures that include more funding relief for Puerto Rico, where torrential rain and extreme winds caused catastrophic damage, including a major power grid failure and nearly 3,000 deaths.

“That whole bill is being jeopardized because of pettiness,” Al Cathey, the mayor of Mexico Beach, told the Washington Post last month.

In Puerto Rico, crumbling infrastructure was made worse by the powerful hurricane. A year and a half later, residents are still waiting on funds to repair hospitals, roads, and public schools. On the mainland, Hurricane Michael victims are also in dire straits. Many residents in Bay County, Florida, home to Mexico Beach, are still living in tents and trailers. Debris still lines the streets of Mexico Beach, and some residents continue to live in severely damaged homes. Because of Congress’ delay, many of the short-term aid programs have run out. Just before the six-month anniversary of the storm, the housing vouchers that allowed victims to stay in hotels expired, leaving 250 households scrambling to find other shelters. “We are truly the forgotten storm,” Bay County Commissioner Philip Griffitts told the Miami Herald.

Despite the sense of urgency in Florida, the president seems intent on continuing the fight over Puerto Rico funding. He has repeatedly said that Puerto Rico has received $91 billion in aid, but that is far from reality. Congress has allocated only $41 billion to Puerto Rico, and only a small fraction of that has been used because local government officials must detail how they plan to use the funds before they are disbursed.

Trump’s misleading tweet comes days after Republican and Democratic senators appeared to be taking steps toward finalizing a package. It signals that the White House isn’t ready to acquiesce to Democrats’ desire to include more funding for Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, hurricane season is set to begin in just four weeks.

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With hurricane season looming, Trump is blocking relief funds and mocking Puerto Rico

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Republicans attack Puerto Rico’s plan to go 100 percent renewable: ‘It’s just unrealistic’

This story was originally published by HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Republicans on Tuesday pilloried Puerto Rico’s plan to stop burning imported fossil fuels to generate electricity, calling the proposal senseless and opening a new front in an increasingly bitter partisan battle over the storm-ravaged island’s struggle to recover.

At a House Natural Resources Committee hearing, GOP lawmakers dismissed the Puerto Rican legislature’s vote last month to approve an ambitious bill mandating 100 percent renewable power by 2050 as “political interference” and accused the territory’s legislators of squandering an opportunity to reap the spoils of the American fracking boom.

“It’s just unrealistic,” Utah Repbulican representative Rob Bishop said. “Yet there’s still legislation.”

The nine-term congressman, who’s received more from the oil and gas industry than any other donor since taking office, last month became the chief antagonist of Democrats’ Green New Deal resolution, which outlines the first climate proposal scientists say is on the scale of what’s needed to combat the global warming crisis. Bishop falsely claimed the Green New Deal banned hamburgers, and performatively gobbled one at a news conference. Later, he suggested the Green New Deal was tantamount to “genocide.”

Yet, on Tuesday, he blamed Puerto Rico lawmakers for playing politics with the state-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

“PREPA has been hamstrung by political demands,” he said. “One of the problems of PREPA in the past is political interference when your primary goal is [to] provide abundant and affordable energy.”

At least 13 states have passed or are considering plans that set 100 percent clean-electricity targets, according to a report last month by the consultancy EQ Research. But Puerto Rico’s circumstance is unique. In September 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria shredded the island’s aging electrical grid, leaving millions without power in the second-longest blackout in world history.

Puerto Rico imports oil and gas for more than 80 percent of its electricity needs, saddling ratepayers with prices roughly twice the American average and a toxic legacy of pollution. Renewables made up just 2 percent of the electricity mix as of two years ago.

To some, the disaster, widely seen as a glimpse of what’s to come as climate change worsens, presented an opportunity to equip Puerto Rico to harvest its plentiful sun and wind for power. But Republicans instead proposed a shock-doctrine approach that promised to make Puerto Rico a reliable market for U.S.-produced gas and oil.

At a November 2017 hearing before the same committee, Colorado Republican representative Doug Lamborn asked at the time “which environmental regulation waivers” were required to jump-start efforts to import more natural gas to Puerto Rico. Last July, Republican representative Tom McClintock  of California wondered why anyone would consider wind and solar favorable options for Puerto Rico at all.

He doubled down on those queries on Tuesday.

“They’re intermittent,” McClintock said. “They require reliable generators that are running at ready status so that if a cloud passes over or the wind drops off, they can instantly come on.”

It’s an argument President Donald Trump routinely deploys, albeit in less sophisticated terms, to deride renewables. But renewables are typically paired with battery systems that store excess solar or wind power for use when the sky is dark or the air is still. Solar panels paired with batteries provided oases of electricity during Puerto Rico’s monthslong blackout. Indeed, the 100 percent renewables bill exempts energy storage systems from sales tax and eliminates rules that barred Puerto Ricans from installing battery units without permission from PREPA.

Yet batteries barely came up at the hearing, except when one lawmaker pointed out that the technology can be expensive.

The hearing came amid a renewed fight over Puerto Rican disaster relief. Trump repeatedly threatened to cut funding to the battered island, which is still struggling to rebuild as federal aid trickles in slowly. Last week, the president falsely claimed Puerto Rico received $91 billion in relief. In reality, of the $41 billion approved to aid Puerto Rico, only about $11 billion has flowed from federal coffers. Another $50 billion is expected to be delivered, but over a period the Associated Press said “could span decades.”

The Senate failed last week to advance two separate aid bills as Democrats demanded additional funding for Puerto Rico to which Republican leaders said Trump would never agree. Negotiations broke down Tuesday as Congress headed for a two-week recess.

Disaster funding hasn’t halted the natural gas industry’s progress. Last July, the Department of Energy proposed easing shipping rules for liquefied natural gas. By reclassifying tankers as “small scale,” the ships could circumvent more robust federal environmental reviews, according to a report by the watchdog site The Real News.

“The finalization of this rule will expedite the permitting of certain small-scale exports of natural gas,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in a press release at the time. “The so-called ‘small-scale rule’ will further unleash American energy by reducing the regulatory burden on American businesses while also providing significant benefits to our trading partners in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.”

There have been hiccups. In December, Texas-based Excelerate Energy abandoned plans to build a $400 million natural gas terminal on the southern shore of Puerto Rico.

But last month, New York-based New Fortress Energy signed a five-year deal with PREPA to supply natural gas to the utility’s power plant in San Juan. On Tuesday morning, the U.S. Energy Information Administration published its latest figures showing Puerto Rico’s liquefied natural gas imports bounced back to pre-storm levels as of late 2018.

Energy Department electricity chief Bruce Walker, a Trump appointee, testified Tuesday that attempting to rebuild Puerto Rico with non-fossil sources after the storm would have slowed the recovery.

“There are some significant engineering concerns,” he said. “It’s not technically possible today to convert that island to 100 percent renewable.”

PREPA CEO José Ortiz Vázquez agreed, but said the debate was over how heavily to invest in imported gas to carry the island through to its eventual goal of 100 percent clean electricity.

“Some groups favor going straight up with maximum capacity of renewables and keep burning natural gas to get us through to 2050, while other groups have a different opinion, where we should make a big bet now on natural gas and slowly work on the renewable issue,” he said.

Asked how long it would take to convert Puerto Rico’s entire electricity supply, a panel of experts in the second half of the hearing offered answers ranging from “within a decade” to 25 years to “well before the 2050 deadline,” if implemented “under a well-managed, professional system.”

There is a real disagreement over the feasibility of going 100 percent renewable on the national level. A paper published in 2017 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argued a better plan was to aim for 80 percent renewables by the middle of the century, with nuclear plants and fossil fuel stations equipped with carbon capture and storage technology making up the rest. But studies released in 2015 made the case that the rapid strides in clean energy made it practical and financially sound to completely transition all 50 states and 139 countries to 100 percent renewable starting immediately.

Yet profits are at the heart of Puerto Rico’s dispute. Last year, the Puerto Rican legislature approved a plan to privatize PREPA. It’s a controversial decision that some say will help the bankrupt utility to dig itself out of debt and make the improvements it needs to lower electricity prices. But others fear a PREPA beholden to investors will lock in high rates and transfer control of a public good into the hands of the rich, establishing yet another way the downtrodden U.S. colony generates wealth for those back on the mainland.

“It’s not possible for PREPA to immediately convert to 100 percent renewable energy. There will be a transition period. We recognize that,” said Democratic representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who presided over Tuesday’s hearing as committee chairman. “But there are concerns that the current plan to focus on natural gas instead of maximizing and doing promotion around solar generation will lock us into an infrastructure that will soon be dated, an infrastructure that will be dependent on importation. Am I correct?”

Marla Pérez Lugo, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, said the question captured “the essence of the problem.”

“We’re still thinking that what’s good for PREPA is good for Puerto Rico,” she said. “And that is not necessarily so.”

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Republicans attack Puerto Rico’s plan to go 100 percent renewable: ‘It’s just unrealistic’

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Fight over Puerto Rico funds puts Senate disaster aid package on hold

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Because it’s a day that ends with y, the government is still balking at providing much-needed disaster aid to Puerto Rico. Two bipartisan disaster aid bills failed to make it out of the Senate this week over disputes about how much relief to give the U.S. territory, which is still recovering from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria nearly two years ago.

On Monday, senators took test votes on two competing measures. The Republican-led faction of the Senate pushed for a $13.45 billion legislation package, which included $600 million for the island’s Nutritional Assistance Program a.k.a food stamps. (Puerto Ricans living on the Caribbean island are four times more likely to be considered food insecure than people stateside.) Democrats thought the bill didn’t go far enough, instead opting to support a House-passed relief bill, which gives hundreds of millions of dollars more for Puerto Rico than the GOP version.

Each bill would have been a massive disaster aid package for victims of flooding, wildfires, tornadoes, and hurricanes across the country, not just aid for Puerto Rico. The Democratic version does not include funding for the historic flooding that swept through the Midwest in mid-March, as the measure was completed and passed in January before the spring storms, but Dems say they are open to adding it.

But neither piece of legislation got the green light to advance to a full floor vote, meaning disaster victims across the country are stuck waiting for much-needed aid. Delays have already led to Puerto Rico’s food stamp program being cut by 25 percent.

“It is the responsibility of the federal government to stand with all American communities in crisis, and we must do so now,” Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, told NPR. “The needs are pressing. The people are waiting.”

President “[I’m] the best thing to happen to Puerto Rico” is not helping the situation. He took to Twitter on Tuesday to blast (and grossly exaggerate) the amount of aid the federal government has already given to the island and (falsely) claim that Puerto Rico has received more disaster relief than many U.S. states.

The rant was very on-brand for the insult-hurling, paper towel-throwing president. Back in January, Trump reportedly told members of his staff that he doesn’t want “another single dollar” going to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

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Fight over Puerto Rico funds puts Senate disaster aid package on hold

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The White House calls food stamp funds for Puerto Rico ‘excessive and unnecessary’

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The White House calls food stamp funds for Puerto Rico ‘excessive and unnecessary’

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Hurricane Maria cut the height of Puerto Rico’s forests by a third

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Hurricane Maria inflicted “unprecedented” and “fundamental” changes to Puerto Rico’s ecosystem, according to new studies conducted by NASA scientists and other experts. It’s part of the latest evidence that the 2017 hurricane was one of the worst natural and humanitarian catastrophes in modern American history.

Using extremely high-resolution mapping equipment, NASA measured every tree in Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane Maria, and found that the hurricane knocked over so many big ones, it reduced the average height of the island’s forests by about one-third. The storm caused 60 years worth of natural tree-falls in just a day. That will have profound effects on everything from water quality (destabilized soils are more likely to produce murky runoff) to the long-term health of the island’s tropical ecosystems.

The researchers unveiled the findings in a series of presentations at this week’s annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C., about 15 months after the storm struck, killing 2,975 people and kicking off one of the largest power blackouts in world history.

While many of the island’s tourist areas are back in business, its cities and people are still struggling to recover. On Monday, Gov. Ricardo Rossello signed a $2 billion tax break, a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $43 to $159 billion in damages from the storm.

Incoming House Democrats have vowed closer oversight of the watchdog institution charged with Puerto Rico’s recovery, where red tape has stalled thousands of reconstruction projects. Meanwhile, political leaders, like Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, have called for Puerto Rico to be a test-bed for Green New Deal ideas.

Although the frenetic news cycle has long since moved on from what’s happening in Puerto Rico, it’s still one of the most important places to understand our shared climate future — the tradeoffs that are currently taking place will define how people there survive the coming decades of escalating climate impacts.

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Hurricane Maria cut the height of Puerto Rico’s forests by a third

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