Puerto Rico has been absolutely devastated
Not one, but two category five hurricanes in the space of a couple weeks, and now this.
Tens of thousands of people in northwestern Puerto Rico were ordered to evacuate Friday afternoon after floodwaters from Hurricane Maria damaged the Guajataca Dam, which the National Weather Service said is in "imminent" danger of failing.
The dam, built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1929, suffered damage to its "structural integrity," Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a news conference Friday. An estimated 70,000 people in the municipalities of Quebradillas, Isabela and part of San Sebastien could be affected if the dam collapses, he said. A failure would likely send a massive amount of water from an inland lake along the Guajataca River, which flows north through coastal communities toward the ocean.
The destruction to Puerto Rico is difficult to imagine.
US President Donald Trump said the storm had "totally obliterated" the US territory, and pledged to visit Puerto Rico.
The island's Governor Ricardo Rossello described the hurricane as "the most devastating storm in a century" and said that Maria had hit the island's electricity grid so badly that it could take months to restore power.
Literally the entire island is without power, and will remain without power until probably the start of winter.
Much of the island has no clean running water. It's as if the island was thrust back two centuries in time.
Private and public infrastructure is just down. We are without power, without water service. No hospital has power service. Our streets are all - you just can't go through. When you go through and you have to literally take out the trees that are on the streets, it's worse hurricane ever.
...We have fuel, but we don't have the way to take the fuel to the hospitals.
Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico's power company in particular were already in crisis before the hurricanes.
The reasons for Puerto Rico's financial insolvency are complicated, but essentially the local government defaulted on $72 billion in bonds beginning August 2015. It tried to update its bankruptcy code to gain some flexibility, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled its plan to restructure its public utilities' debt violated federal law. So, after years looking for a solution to its woes, the commonwealth filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2017, the day after its creditors filed a lawsuit looking to collect on the debt. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, one of its many agencies bogged down by debt load, itself filed for bankruptcy in July.
Fast forward four months to now, and Puerto Rico has to an electrical grid that's inoperable, homes that are destroyed, underfunded hospitals that are packed, and a tourism industry that just washed away.
Without power Puerto Rico's shaky economy will grind to a halt. The already unpayable debt will become more so.
On top of all that, there is a complication.
Complicating recovery efforts, Puerto Rico is under the oversight of a federally-appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board. It cannot issue new debt or change its budgetary allocations without approval.
All of this will contribute to a long-term trend that will damage Puerto Rico's future even more than hurricanes.
But over the next several months, “the combination of the financial crisis, the health-care crisis and now these two natural disasters, it’s a recipe for a lot of people to feel that they’re hopeless and they need to come to the [mainland] United States,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), whose Brooklyn-area district has a significant Puerto Rican constituency. Velázquez, who is awaiting news about family members on the island, warned that if legislation addressing the economic problems isn’t coupled with federal hurricane relief, “we’re going to have an unprecedented number of people who will continue to leave the island.”