Hurricane season has undoubtedly proven particularly brutal this year as the recent memories of Hurricane(s) Harvey, Irma, and Maria and the vast destruction they have caused still loom in the public mind. Although the death toll and overall costs of damages from Harvey and Irma are larger than that of Hurricane Maria, the latter has left Puerto Rico devastated and in dire need of assistance. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth and the fact that it is an island remotely located over 1,000 miles southeast of the contiguous United States have left some less concerned with the destruction and devastation on the Caribbean island than with areas struck by Hurricane(s) Harvey and Irma. The disaster that has swept across Puerto Rico should not be an isolated concern, however, as the crisis unfolding there has the power to produce implications for mainland United States as well.
Even superficially examining the economic element of Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico reveals a glaring example of how the U.S. could be affected by the Caribbean nation’s current crisis. Before the hurricane hit the island, Puerto Rico was over $70 million dollars in debt. This is particularly important because a large portion of this debt is owned by private American bond investors who stand to lose substantial amounts of money if Puerto Rico is unable to fulfill its financial obligations. Worse still, now that disaster has struck, Puerto Rico is poised to plunge even further into debt. In 2016, manufacturing accounted for over half of Puerto Rico’s GDP with tourism accounting for another 8%, a number that was predicted to grow over the coming years.1 But these industries will not likely be viable generators of income in the foreseeable future as emergency management personnel struggle to reopen and repair the island’s hospitals, banks, telephone lines and other basic services. Moreover, the cost of damages across the island is estimated to be between $40 billion and $85 billion dollars.2 This means that Puerto Rico will have to deal with rebuilding an entire island that is home to 3.4 million people on top of crippling debt (which led to the government filing bankruptcy in May), all while generating minimal income. Needless to say, Puerto Rico is going to need some financial help from the mainland to rebuild the island.
Health and Safety Implications
If the economic cost to rebuild Puerto Rico is not enough to concern Americans, then there is a plethora of other factors to consider. For instance, healthcare across the island is concerning as many hospitals are running on generators while fuel is very hard to come by, and a lack of basic communications has made alerting ambulance drivers and hospital staff of emergencies incredibly difficult.3 The absence of electricity, coupled with the inaccessibility of clean water, have also raised major concerns for sanitation and the rise of illnesses including typhoid as many people across the island cannot refrigerate food or even flush toilets. Furthermore, even though the hurricane initially eliminated the issue of mosquitoes, they will likely make a resurgence across the island, including those carrying Zika virus. As Americans learned in recent years, Zika virus is not just isolated to Caribbean islands and South American countries. It has affected thousands of mainland Americans too, and has the potential to affect even more if people leaving the island who are infected with the virus, both federal aid workers and native residents, travel to the mainland. On the international stage, allowing a humanitarian crisis to continue on American soil could also prove both embarrassing for the U.S. government and damaging for the image of the U.S. as the world’s foremost superpower.
The potential for the rise of poverty also stands to greatly impact Puerto Ricans and mainland Americans alike. Puerto Rico already suffers from brain drain as tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans leave for mainland U.S. every year, including the 84,000 who left in 2014.4 If the island cannot provide basic services and infrastructure, including public schools which are all currently closed and may not open again for weeks, this trend will undoubtedly increase. This will mean the integration of larger numbers of Puerto Ricans into mainland communities. For mainland Americans this means greater interaction with Puerto Ricans as well as a larger Puerto Rican voter base. If Puerto Ricans perceive the federal government’s response to this catastrophe to be neglectful or lackadaisical, their voting habits and overall attitude as mainlanders may reflect this. This is important because many Puerto Ricans are likely to move to a swing state like Florida, which is relatively close to home and characterized by a large Latino population.
In the months preceding the hurricane, Puerto Rico was already dealing with political turmoil including a major university protest over austerity measures that lasted weeks.5 If the government’s response to this disaster is viewed unfavorably as millions of people struggle to access basic supplies like clean water and food, protests will likely continue and possibly worsen, furthering instability throughout the island. Crime also often surges in post-disaster nations, and Puerto Rico already deals with its own drug trade and gang violence. With many parts of the island cut off from the rest of the population, there is a potential for gang influence to rise where government is absent. It is also estimated that between 70%-80% of the cocaine many of these gangs smuggle through Puerto Rico is transported to mainland U.S.6 Amid all the post-hurricane chaos, smugglers may have an even easier time shipping drugs to the mainland. Even more worrisome is the potential for survivors to suffer from PTSD, depression, or anxiety, and research shows that drug and substance abuse rises after natural disasters as some go searching for immediate coping mechanisms. The availability of illegal drugs across the island and a lack of access to mental health services and medications as pharmacies struggle to reopen could lead to more individuals turning to illicit drugs. Before Maria, it was estimated that more than 100,000 drug addicts resided on the island, and it is doubtful that a disaster of this magnitude will help that number decrease.8 Again, as Puerto Ricans leave the island in greater numbers, this drug abuse can also find its way to mainland American shores. Between political turmoil, gangs, and drugs, it is clear the island has a long, difficult road ahead in recovering from the disaster.
Puerto Rico is a beautiful island with a warm, friendly population of American citizens who now face the monumental task of completely rebuilding their home. The current crisis will undeniably have far-reaching implications for Puerto Ricans and mainland Americans alike including impacts on the economy, health standards, politics, and the security of the island. Puerto Rico can either be a shining example of Americans united to rebuild catastrophe-struck areas as many believe post-Hurricane Harvey restoration efforts to be, or it can become the ultimate tragedy as ineffective government efforts lead to greater poverty and an overall loss of opportunity for Puerto Ricans.
- Travel & Tourism Economic Impact 2017 Puerto Rico. World Travel & Tourism Council. https://www.wttc.org/-/media/files/reports/economic-impact-research/countries-2017/puertorico2017.pdf
- AIR Worldwide Estimates Industry Insured Losses for Hurricane Maria in the Caribbean. AIR Worldwide. http://www.air-worldwide.com/Press-Releases/AIR-Worldwide-Estimates-Industry-Insured-Losses-for-Hurricane-Maria-in-the-Caribbean/
- USNS Comfort Responds to Hospital-Generator Failure in Puerto Rico. Official Website of the United States Navy. http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=102741
- Puerto Ricans Leave in Record Numbers for Mainland U.S. Jens Manuel Krogstad. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/10/14/puerto-ricans-leave-in-record-numbers-for-mainland-u-s/
- Puerto Rico’s University is Paralyzed by Protests and Facing Huge Cuts. Frances Robles. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/25/us/puerto-ricos-university-is-paralyzed-by-protests-and-facing-huge-cuts.html
- & 8. Application Proposal for Federal Fiscal Year 2015 Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program. Puerto Rico Department of Justice. http://www.justicia.pr.gov/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Application-Proposal-JAG2015-final.pdf
- Substance Abuse Increases After Natural Disasters. Elevation Behavioral Health.https://www.elevationbehavioralhealth.com/substance-abuse-increases-natural-disasters/