Training 8/23/2018

When The Lights Go Out

by Chuck Holton

The Fort has seen many things. Pirates, sieges, vandals. Millions of tourists in more recent years. And storms. Dozens of storms. Now known as Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, its thick stone masonry has withstood the ravages of nearly 500 years. Designed to guard the entrance to San Juan bay, aside from the encroaching moss and the grey patina brought by constant sun, rain and salt water, the fortress still stands much as it did in 1600. When a category-five hurricane slammed the island in October 2017, the fortress withstood the tempest without a scratch.

If only the rest of the island had been so fortified. It wasn’t. 

Hurricane Maria was like a 60-mile-wide tornado that scored a direct hit on the island. Roofs were torn off. Entire forests were stripped of all their leaves and even their bark—the white wood denuded of all protection. Crops were wiped out. The wind was so fierce that it even scoured the paint off of some buildings. Worst of all, the country’s power grid suffered near complete destruction. The island’s population of 3.7 million found themselves completely in the dark.

Bridges were washed out. So many trees were felled across roads that mountain villages were cut off for weeks. The water system was wrecked, so that many are having to drink from the water trickling out of mountain springs just to survive, even now. Gas stations and grocery stores were closed. ATMs were out of order, and with the power out, most had no cash to buy what little food was available. Desperate citizens turned to looting in some areas, and the criminal element took advantage of the chaos to rob with impunity. A $100 billion economy came screeching to a halt in the space of 12 hours. 

Hospitals ran critically short of medicines, clean water and fuel for their generators. Puerto Rico has a huge problem with diabetes (we’ll talk more about that later) and so the demand for insulin, which must be refrigerated, became acute within 24 hours of the storm.

Stepping into the Disaster

Stop for a second and ponder: What would you do in this situation? 

Natural disasters happen all the time. Hurricanes, fires, floods, earthquakes, civil unrest … there are any number of potential tragedies that could happen where you live. If the storm hit your house, would you be prepared?

How much food does your pantry hold right this minute? Enough to last your family a week perhaps? Could you stretch it to two? How about drinking water? How long would you last if the tap stopped running this afternoon? Electricity? Do you happen to own a generator? How much fuel do you have on hand? Do you have the means to survive without central heat or air conditioning for several weeks?

For the people of Puerto Rico, these questions stopped being merely academic on the night of September 20. They went from being “good ideas” to life or death in a matter of hours.

I showed up in San Juan on one of the first commercial flights once the airport reopened about 10 days after the storm. The outgoing concourse was absolutely wall-to-wall with people trying to get out. Stranded tourists had been sleeping on the floor of the airport, with no air conditioning, running water and precious little food for days. Those who could afford it paid upwards of $2,000 for tickets on the few flights that managed to get out. Tourists were completely unprepared to deal with such a situation, and the only thing hotter than the steaming concourse were the tempers of those trying to leave. The whole place reeked of too many people, too close together mixed with the odor of mold already growing on soggy ceiling tiles. The few incoming flights were packed with aid workers, which meant the belt at baggage claim was a revolving display of generators, medical supplies and Pelican cases. Lots and lots of Pelican cases.

Several of them were mine. Anticipating the situation we’d be facing on the ground, we brought satellite phones, camping gear and some Bioenno solar generators with military-spec ultralight 60-watt solar panels, which roll up when not in use. Having heard about the insulin shortage, I had also visited the pharmacy before I left and bought as much insulin as I could carry along with a case lot of Metformin, a drug used to lower blood sugar. There was one essential item in my luggage, something I have never before checked on an airplane: a case of drinking water. It turned out to be the most valuable bag we brought in—it was 48 hours before we could find any more clean water, and our team of three would have been in bad shape without it. 

The pandemonium inside the airport was eclipsed by the devastation outside. We managed to rent a vehicle, a minor miracle by itself, only compounded by the fact that it was a four-wheel drive, and one with a full tank of gas. Apparently, the blistering Puerto Rican sun wasn’t the only thing smiling down on us. 

The main roads in and around the capital of San Juan were somewhat cleared of downed trees, but shattered power poles and their attached lines were still strewn everywhere, forcing traffic to divert around or, in some cases, over the remnants of the destroyed power grid. 

The port was open, and aid was already pouring in from private charities, NGOs, FEMA, and even the U.S. military. The problem at that point was getting the supplies out to the people. Rumors swirled with a near-hurricane force of their own as some claimed FEMA was confiscating aid and refusing to allow it to be distributed. Others said the longshoremen refused to allow anyone who wasn’t a dues-paying union member to offload the ships.

Most of the stories being spread by word of mouth and on social media turned out to be exaggerated or downright false, but that didn’t stop local politicians from rushing the microphones to capitalize on the tragedy to score points for their team. Carmen Cruz, the left-wing mayor of San Juan, who had been a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton, jumped at the chance to bash the Trump administration, whipping up her ire for the cameras, “We are dying … and you are killing us with the inefficiency and bureaucracy.” She fumed. “I’m done being polite, I’m done being politically correct. I’m mad as hell.”

This was all repeated with breathless abandon by the major networks, desperate to paint the administration’s response as ineffective or better yet, downright uncaring. One wonders how the coverage might have been different if the Clintons occupied the White House. Actually, one doesn’t need to wonder—only look at the way the media fêted the Clintons after the 2010 earthquake that destroyed Haiti. With Hillary as Secretary of State and Bill put in charge of more than $5 billion in relief funds, they were hailed as humanitarian saviors, though they managed to make sure very little of the aid made it to Haitians who were not Clinton donors. But that’s another story.

The truth is, Maria wasn’t a surprise like the earthquake in Haiti. Not only was there at least a week’s warning by the U.S. weather service, but Puerto Rico didn’t recently move to Hurricane Alley. The island has been at risk of major hurricanes, well … forever.

Puerto Rico’s leaders could have pre-positioned food, water, medicines and fuel at safe locations around the island before the storm. They did not. Apparently, they expected the U.S. federal government to be able to make more than 10 million meals per day appear by magic, then transport them across 1,000 miles of ocean and somehow distribute them across an area of 3,500 square miles, roughly the size of Connecticut, much of which was inaccessible by road. They expected this to happen within hours after the storm passed, apparently forgetting that FEMA was already stretched thin providing aid to more than 10 million Americans in Texas and Florida who were suffering in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma only weeks before.

In fact, FEMA was already at work in the week before the storm, and within 48 hours the Trump team had over 7,000 federal workers and 1,600 National Guardsmen on the ground to assist. By the time Carmen Cruz gave her impassioned speech, U.S. Navy vessels were already arriving with millions of meals, water and building supplies. The military wasn’t busy trying to make political hay, it was busy flying tons of food and water into remote villages cut off by the storm. Dozens of ships and aircraft, two submarines, and tens of thousands of American servicemen and women answered the call. Thousands of volunteers were already hard at work as well.

But the scale of the devastation was such that there could be no reasonable expectation of relief on the scale necessary to alleviate the suffering. But that didn’t stop the politicians’ tongues wagging or fingers pointing. And while they politicized, people were dying.

I’m from the Government And I’m here to help …

Perhaps politicians like Carmen Cruz can’t help it. It wasn’t a lie to say that her constituents were dying. Puerto Rico’s Republican governor recently ordered with the quasi-colonial policies that the U.S. government foisted upon the island. Much of it is due to Puerto Rico’s politicians, who have chosen to use the largesse of the U.S. Treasury to buy votes through the expansion of social welfare programs. These ultimately perpetrate the very ills they are meant to address. 

In one case, Puerto Rico’s leaders decided to implement a huge 7 percent sales tax on just about everything. They sold millions in bonds based on the promise of the revenue that tax would provide. But it didn’t work out as planned. People either stopped buying things or bought through the black market. Tax revenue actually declined. Those investors who bought the bonds lost money. The politicians shrugged and blamed “Wall Street fat cats.” But that’s what politicians do, is it not? Wall Street bankers buy bonds, but so do regular Americans looking for a steady income stream.

A Culture of Dependency

The U.S. government spends in excess of $2 billion per year on AFDC benefits for Puerto Rico. More than 37 percent of all islanders get the majority of their income from public assistance programs. Real  unemployment is near 50 percent. Virtually all of the food Puerto Ricans eat is imported, which makes it simultaneously more expensive and less healthy. This contributes to the fact that Puerto Rico makes Mississippi look good in terms of both poverty and obesity-related chronic illness. 

The island’s economy is in even worse shape. Earlier in 2017, Puerto Rico defaulted on $74 billion in debt. There is an additional $53 billion in unfunded pensions. Both represent the investments of everyday Americans’ hard-earned money that have been squandered by the government. Since the storm, many on the left and in academia have called for this debt to be forgiven outright. This would do nothing except move people from the column of contributors to the column of dependents. Retirees who invested in bonds for the fixed income and stability will find their nest eggs gone, and the working-class Puerto Ricans who socked away money for their pensions are now finding that the money was spent, not invested. These pensioners are looking at a minimum 20 percent reduction in their already meager monthly payment. Both will then be left to rely more on government assistance, which means higher taxes, bigger deficits, and fewer benefits for everyone else. 

Over the last two decades in Puerto Rico, roads weren’t getting built, bridges weren’t getting maintained and the crumbling power generation system was stuck in the 1940s, with one notable exception. The U.S. taxpayer spent in excess of $170 million in “grants” to support several “green energy” projects around the island, building massive solar and wind farms to augment the power supply. In the end, these projects were plagued with corruption and cost overruns, and served electricity to less than 2 percent of the island. To add injury to insult, both the wind farms and the solar arrays were destroyed in the storm.

One could make a case, however, that the estimated $94 billion in damages left by Maria might just be exactly what the island’s power grid needed—a clean slate. Starting over from scratch might actually be cheaper in the long run than continuing to prop up a hopelessly outdated patchwork of archaic power plants and worn-out transmission lines. That’s little consolation, though, to the million or so Puerto Ricans who won’t have electricity until mid-2018. Imagine camping in your home for eight months straight, cooking over a gas stove until the gas (or the money) runs out, then scrounging for wood. Catching rain in a barrel and using it for cooking, bathing, everything, hoping the mosquitos who are also using the water barrels as nurseries don’t infect your kids with dengue, chikungunya or zika. Imagine reverting to the way of life your great-grandparents lived. Up with the dawn, washing clothes by hand. Reading by candlelight. Perhaps even dying younger than expected from toxic mold or some long-forgotten illness that modern civilization would consider nothing more than a nuisance.

We live in a world of constant communication. That world has been shattered in Puerto Rico, with many residents unable to check on a loved one or even call the police. The cell towers on the island were knocked out too, and while repairs are a top priority, the network has been plagued by rampant theft of the generators that power them or the fuel that runs them. 

This is life across much of the island today. It’s jumping in any line you come across, even if you don’t know why it’s there, because if there is a line, it’s probably for something you need. It’s extended families squeezed into the one house that wasn’t damaged by the storm. It’s trying to remember the feeling of air conditioning … and failing. It’s hoping the government might actually use the billions in aid to get things working again soon … in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

All that money is bound to result in corruption. When the $300 million contract to rebuild the power grid was awarded to a no-name company from Whitefish, Mont., with only two employees, many shook their heads knowingly. Here we go again. Linesmen are purportedly being paid $60 an hour while their companies charge the government $360 an hour for the same worker. Business as usual.  

Wanted: Hired Guns

One legitimate growth industry is armed security. Many hotels, resorts, cell service providers, laboratories, and pharmaceutical companies were desperately seeking armed guards among the chaos after the storm. I hadn’t been on the ground two hours and when I received a call from an old Special Operator buddy, asking if I wanted work as a security guard for a major hotel chain. $500 a day, minimum 60-day contract, maybe longer. Oh, and bring your own gun. 

If only there were two of me. Even if I wasn’t running around with my hair on fire trying to get interviews, do live hits every hour and document the situation on the ground in between. Even if I wasn’t doing all that in the post-apocalyptic landscape of no electricity, no cell service and no traffic lights. Even if I wanted to spend the next two months away from my family, where would I get a gun in Puerto Rico? For the law-abiding, it isn’t nearly as easy as it should be.

Puerto Rico’s gun laws are similar to those of Baltimore, Md., both in terms of restrictiveness and effectiveness (or lack thereof). It is a “may-issue” jurisdiction on paper, but in practice the granting of a permit to exercise one’s Second Amendment rights rarely happens for regular citizens. There was a bright spot starting in 2015 when a lawsuit brought by citizens won the right to what we like to call “constitutional carry.” Unfortunately, the decision was overturned by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court in late October 2016, restoring the more prohibitive status quo. Now, law-abiding citizens must either accept the inability to protect their families or become a criminal by obtaining a firearm on the black market. This is both common and easily done, according to people that I interviewed. As is always the case, the bad elements of society have no problems getting weapons, and no qualms about using them. 

We stayed one night with a family of missionaries in the San Juan suburb of Bayamon, which has a higher crime rate than Baltimore, and were constantly reminded to be vigilant even walking between the house and our car. Neighbors had recently been robbed in their driveway. Crime actually went down in the first week after the storm. The criminals were devastated, too. But looting, robberies and assaults soon came back with a vengeance, as the bad guys took advantage of the new paradigm—a 100 percent cash economy and a police force stretched to the breaking point. In short, it was a really bad time for the average Puerto Rican family to be disarmed.

At least Puerto Rico didn’t follow the U.S. Virgin Islands into outright confiscation. Also hit hard by the storm, the governor of the tiny U.S. protectorate declared a state of emergency and signed an executive order giving the National Guard the blatantly unconstitutional power to actually confiscate privately owned guns and ammunition. Here is text from the actual order: 

The Adjutant General is authorized and directed to seize arms, ammunition, explosives, incendiary material or any other property that may be required by the military forces for the performance of this emergency mission in accordance with the Rules of Force promulgated by the Virgin Island National Guard and approved by the Virgin Island Department of Justice.

Whether or not any confiscations actually took place, this executive order would undoubtedly chill any freedom-loving American to their core. Worse yet, the order was extended more than 70 days later. 

While nobody was calling for gun confiscation in Puerto Rico, the fact remains that American fathers and mothers have been routinely denied their constitutional right to protect their families with a firearm there since well before this tragedy, though the need is greater now than ever. But how did the former special operators-turned hired security obtain their weapons? Well … suffice it to say that in the zombie-apocalypse movie that was Puerto Rico after Maria, the cops had bigger problems to deal with. Most were on their feet in the hot sun all day working as human traffic lights, trying to keep desperate Puerto Rican drivers from killing each other at every blacked-out intersection. They spend their nights guarding gas-powered light trailers placed strategically in bad neighborhoods to deter rampant theft and looting, to keep the trailers themselves from being looted. The cops needed all the extra security they could get, especially security for the cell towers, whose diesel generators are worth their weight in gold until they can get the power grid functioning again. 

What Happens in Puerto Rico … Comes to Florida

Many can’t wait that long. Since Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, all they need to emigrate to the United States is a plane ticket. As a result of the storm, more than 200,000 have already left, and eventually upwards of 10 percent of the island is expected to move north. This will have a deleterious effect on both the island and the mainland. Since most who can afford to leave are those with college degrees and/or the money to start businesses, the potential mass migration could amount to a “brain drain” of epic proportions. The best and brightest Puerto Ricans may leave their country when they are needed most.

Secondly, the majority will likely move to Florida, which may have a profound impact on future U.S. national elections. (Puerto Ricans can only vote in federal elections if they live on the mainland.) Since they have a well-documented history of voting for Democratic candidates, their presence in Florida could turn it from a purple “swing” state to one that consistently decides national elections in favor of Democrats. Aside from the obvious humanitarian reasons, this fact alone may motivate Congress to get the lights back on in Puerto Rico sooner rather than later. They might also consider legislation renewing the federal corporate tax breaks instituted in 1976 that helped Puerto Rico to attract hundreds of major U.S. corporations. While their long-term impact is controversial, the breaks undoubtedly created tons of jobs on the island and gave the local government a huge revenue boost. These breaks expired fully in 2006 and many corporations left, which is one reason nearly 50 percent of working-age Puerto Ricans are unemployed. 2006 was also the year Puerto Rico began borrowing heavily.

Boots on the Ground

At the time of this writing, the U.S. military is still on the ground helping with the recovery. They are working on infrastructure such as the Guajataca spillway, which was close to failing. Many of the troops there currently are local Puerto Rico National Guardsmen. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been busily installing temporary pumps to move water from the Guajataca reservoir to local residents who were without a consistent supply of water. Other military units have pitched in, lending helicopter support to move giant sandbags into place to shore up the crumbling spillway and carry needed supplies into the mountainous interior of the island. This is a political win for the government, both local and federal, because nothing says “America” like a Chinook helicopter delivering water to you and your thirsty family. 

The bad news is that deployed U.S. troops are a very inefficient way to run a recovery. That is to say, they are godawful expensive. The cost to the U.S. treasury to keep one troop in the field routinely runs nearly
$1 million per year. Considering that at the average day labor rate in Puerto Rico, one could hire more than 50 locals for the cost of one U.S. soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. Three weeks after the storm President Trump tweeted “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” The media went into a feeding frenzy trying to make Trump look uncharitable but he has a point. Hiring locals will lead to more long-term prosperity and stability at a lower price tag, and leaving the U.S. government on the ground longer than absolutely necessary only exacerbates the problem of dependency, which is already a terrible burden on the island’s culture.

The Rise of Rescue Tourism

The Gallery Inn weathered the storm with very little damage. That’s because the boutique hotel in San Juan’s old town is all but part of the massive stone walls that make up the city’s fortress. Its owner, Jan D’Esopo, purchased the 18th-century colonial house in 1961, renovated it, and has made her living by her generous sense of hospitality for more than 50 years. That graciousness was evident during the storm when stranded tourists showed up at her door with nowhere to go. The power and water were out, but she welcomed them in anyway. “I’m in the hospitality business,” she said later. “I don’t throw people out. So we actually had about 15 people here during the storm.”  

She didn’t throw us out, either. When we arrived on the island there were very few hotels accepting guests. We slept at the home of a missionary family for the first night and slept on the ground after that. Then one day we chanced to meet a young woman who was staying at the Gallery Inn. She was a local business owner who had no water in her building, so Jan was kind enough to take her in. We offered to pay cash to stay in a couple of her empty rooms, and Jan readily agreed. 

The hotel has a large generator that can run everything in her hotel except the air conditioners. The water came back on for part of each day shortly before we arrived, and the lack of air conditioning wasn’t too bad, since the thick masonry walls, high ceilings and cross-ventilation were a design feature in the centuries before that technology was invented.

We made a habit of joining our hostess on her rooftop balcony each evening to watch the sun go down and discuss the day. Jan is a delightful conversationalist and can remember a time before mobile phones and other distractions killed the art of keeping polite company. But as we talked, she began to open up about the stresses of running the hotel. Its structure had indeed survived with very little damage, but without power and especially internet, Jan was unable to take reservations and therefore saw looming the very real possibility of losing her livelihood. “I’m very discouraged about the internet situation,” she confided. “What we really need, though, is for people not to be afraid to come back to Puerto Rico. We still have lovely, beautiful beaches, great weather. What we need most is tourists.”

As of Christmas day, the power in Old San Juan is back on most of the time. The hotel saw a few tourists starting to return as cruise ships resumed calling at the port in mid-November. It will take a whole lot more to help the island on the long road to recovery.

Many of her guests these days are actually locals. They may live only a few miles away, but for these guests, it isn’t the view or the history that brings them here. 

It’s the air conditioning.

These Puerto Ricans never imagined living in a world without it, especially not for half a year. But that’s the nature of tragedy, isn’t it? It is so ruinous because nobody expects it to happen. I’m a conflict reporter. I see disasters all the time. But this one was different. And I came away from Puerto Rico with a new commitment to be prepared as best I can for whatever form tragedy might take when it is my turn to go through it.

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