What's Keeping Me Up at Night
Published on May 31, 2020
The last couple of months have been nothing but bizarre. We are living under circumstances that feel more like something out of a movie than real life. A silent and invisible threat that lurks on surfaces, among friends and family, and even in the air that we breathe. The places where we work and shop and go to school are shuttered. Our routines turned upside down.
So, there is much that you would imagine keeps me up at night, as I’m sure it does you. But I will confess to you that what has my mind racing and worried is thinking about how Puerto Rico will cope with the hurricane season which begins tomorrow.
Experts at NOAA are predicting a bumper crop hurricane season this year. Warmer than average sea-surface temperatures as well as the lack of the suppressing forces of El Niño promise one of the more active seasons in recent memory.
For Puerto Rico, the implications of a storm this summer, even a relatively small one, are bracing.
First of all, Puerto Rico’s economy is very likely in the worst shape it has ever been. We have been hammered by a decade-long recession, a bankruptcy process, a series of earthquakes in our southern coast, and now the devastating health and economic effects of COVID-19. While less obvious, the bankruptcy process has perhaps been the most devastating blow of all given that the austerity measures it has provoked have in turn stripped away the capacity of key institutions like our Health Department and the University of Puerto Rico. These are crucial institutions not just during the current crisis but for Puerto Rico’s long-term physical and educational well-being.
Families and communities are also in much worse shape as we enter the 2020 hurricane season than they were for Hurricane María. This time around we have hundreds of thousands of more people unemployed and unable to prepare for the storm season. And we can expect that the general population will face the season in less than optimal health as many have avoided doctors and hospitals during the pandemic for fear of contracting the virus.
To complicate matters further, Puerto Rico’s population has a high percentage of older folks, precisely the cohort most at risk from COVID-19. And the recent earthquakes have rendered unsafe and unusable a great number of schools on the island, thus leaving us without our principal source of emergency shelters. This precisely at a time when we need to vastly increase the amount of space available in order to provide for proper social distancing. As if that was not enough, a looming threat continues to be the possibility of water rationing caused either by drought or the physical decay of water infrastructure on the island. This at a moment when hand-washing and hygiene are paramount.
In this context, Puerto Rico can be clearly seen as a patient with acute pre-existing conditions and consequently at higher risk than many other places for the effects of COVID-19. What is a gut-punch to New York or California is a knock-out blow for us.
What’s more, aid fatigue and the global aspect of the pandemic, and in particular the limits it imposes on air travel – which will make it difficult not only to take people out of harm’s way but to bring in help and supplies – guarantees that we will not be able to count on the kind of volunteer or philanthropic response from outside of Puerto Rico that we’ve seen in past disasters, including the mutual assistance agreements that were so vital for the repairing of the energy grid after Hurricane María. In fact, even FEMA is stretched out thinner than ever before as it has to deal with COVID-19 activity in all 50 sates at once. Already the agency is letting states and municipalities know that they will be providing more of their aid “virtually”, which is particularly worrying for us as Puerto Rico lost all communications and internet capacity for months after María. As an island, the supply chain and logistical constraints we have been seeing all over the world are especially pernicious for rescue and relief operations.
As we saw after María and are still experiencing now, President Trump’s textured relationship with Puerto Rico was a factor in the execution of relief operations. There is no evidence this has changed and, in fact, will likely worsen as Puerto Rico is forced to compete for federal resources with all fifty states at once.
Oddly enough, as I think of this sobering landscape before us, it is not despair I feel but hope and faith and encouragement. It is human nature to help others in need. It is a built-in instinct that harkens to our communal past.
I have been struggling lately with the decision of whether, given these realities and potential scenarios, we should re-activate the Puerto Rico Recovery Fund which played such a vital role in the aftermath of Hurricane María. The truth, however, is that our plate is already full with pivoting to work from home, advocating for Puerto Rico in a particularly complex session of Congress, developing new ways to provide credible data and information and researching policy in areas new to us like public health and our Living with Risk portfolio. All while holding ourselves together as a nonprofit in unquestionably the most difficult fundraising environment we have ever faced.
Though CNE is busier now than ever, the idea of doing nothing is hard to swallow. Especially knowing, as we do, that the likelihood of state failure is extremely high. We saw this failure of the government after María and after the earthquakes and my prediction is that we are going to see it again but this time on steroids.
No doubt, the specter we are facing is daunting, to say the least. Yes, we are busy. Yes, this is not our core work. But if not us, then who?
Oddly enough, as I think of this sobering landscape before us, it is not despair I feel but hope and faith and encouragement. It is human nature to help others in need. It is a built-in instinct that harkens to our communal past. We do it not just because we’ve realized we cannot rely solely on our government. We do it because we are called to by our better angels. And it brings us peace and joy and rest.
Shortly after María, as I reflected on what had happened and on the lessons we needed to internalize from that experience, I remember telling my wife that the next time would be different. What I meant was that we shouldn’t prepare for the last war. Next time would bring a different trajectory. Next time we would have enough water. Next time people would stock up on their insulin. It would be other challenges that would test us. And indeed, that has been the case. Now perhaps instead of water, our most critical supply may be masks and PPE’s. Instead of generators, it may be hand sanitizer and hygiene products. Whatever it is, we need to prepare and we need to be ready.
That’s where you come in.
You were an integral part of our ability to respond in the way we did after Hurricane María. That experience changed us all and is part of why we can’t turn our backs on Puerto Rico now. So we will suit up once again, first in preparation, and later, if and when the call comes, in action. But we won’t be able to do it without the commitment of your unwavering support. I urge you to join us and support us in this important mission once again.
Very truly yours,
Miguel A. Soto-Class
President and Founder
Center for a New Economy