Government in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria: Monumental Failure

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Dozens of people were killed in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria.

There is no test of government response capabilities more true than a natural disaster. The type of adversity brought forth by hurricane Maria reveals precisely its nature –- good or not so much –- in the midst of public perceptions and distraught.

With no way to spin this politically, in a polarizing or partisan way without looking insensitive, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello Nevarez, his cabinet members, agencies, and state and municipal employees are discovering just how catastrophically egalitarian and democratic Maria was.

In the midst of the aftermath, they and us, are discovering the genuine extent of government, or rather its limits. There is also a sense that fanatical partisanship, which is the main and most distinctive attribute of Puerto Rican politics, won’t solve the crisis that follows something like Maria.

Governor Rossello is probably acquainting himself with the meaning of government. That administrative entity that tends to the state, the body in which the people deposits its consent and its trust, both of which are expected to be reciprocated by formulating commonsensical non-sectarian policy aimed at the common good.

Now, this is the part where a skeptic might balk. And with reason, the exercise of power is in its essence polemical (a term which shares the same root as the word politics), and there is animosity in the exchange between government and opposition. But there is a juncture in which publics expect their governments to do just that — govern. At times, the most civic and assertively-minded of publics do pressure governments to act in conformity to their duties.

At their most essential, such as this emergency, government’s measure up –- or not -– to their obligations. Natural disasters, the great equalizers they are, force upon them a perspective of action or helplessness, unlike any other contingency.

Take for example U.S.’ federal, state, and city responses when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans is 2005, where public authority essentially abandoned the city’s residents to their fate. Terrible lessons were drawn from that unfortunate event and used with effectiveness in that same state plus Texas and Florida in the aftermaths of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

In the international scene, both India’s effective evacuation of its eastern coast and the Philippines’ grossly-inadequate idleness when typhoons Phailin and Haiyan hit them hard are also quite illustrative of this point.

To be fair, there is almost no measure of readiness that can prepare you for a major climatological event such as hurricane Maria. All government and the population could do was to brace for the catastrophe that came and followed.

Herein lies the dilemma, though governor Rossello was successful in stressing to the public to take this emergency seriously, as he also did during Irma, probably saving countless lives in the process. He and his cabinet have been overwhelmed by the aftermath of Maria, revealing in the process just how broken government and governance are.

He is a victim and a product of consequence and electoral wishful thinking. To say it another way, he is living now with the poisoned fruit of a decadent polity. Decades of bad-faith politics, ushered by Puerto Rico’s two majoritarian parties, Rossello’s own New Progressive Party and the Popular Democratic Party, along with their toxic, elaborated political fantasies, transformed the country’s politics into an abominable form of sports entertainment; bringing spectacle, scandal and pointless bickering into and art form that simultaneously entertained the feeble-minded and exasperated everyone else yearning for something of substance policy-wise.

Using Puerto Rico’s territorial status as an excuse to not govern or assume a national or country project –- any project -– political parties profited from an endless, sterile debate on whether annexation, an evolution of its current “autonomy” or full independence was the optimal option; all the while making the common good, economic activity, collective security, and an optimal infrastructure secondary to a change in status.

Everything will change for the better once we become this, or achieve the full potential of that, they’d say. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico became less and less viable as an entity, betting on chaos as a premise to significant change.

In this regard there is a third conspirator: the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which went along with this fall into the abyss, watching the country tear itself apart while patting themselves in the back inebriated in arrogant self-righteousness, while scraping enough votes to keep its organization registered in the Electoral Commission so it can keep suckling at the electoral fund.

With a crushing public debt assumed by previous majoritarian governments with ease and impunity, Governor Rossello has little maneuvering room for this emergency and everything else that requires his attention. He depends on the federal government of the United States and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), specifically to move relief aid to where it’s needed.

He and Puerto Rico are also recipients of the Puerto Rican diaspora’s goodwill, which has mobilized money and goods through social and traditional media to help out in this most trying time. The country has also been offered help by the Dominican Republic and Cuba, which, citing current shipping laws, the U.S. government has allowed only briefly.

But help has come, in droves. So why do we have kilometric lines at gas stations or supermarkets? There is an absence of coordination and logistics, where an increase in demand is met by precarious supply. Again, look at gas stations for a nefarious example. Lacking any rail system since the 1950s everything has to be hauled by trucks, they need gas and diesel, which we have, but it’s apparently, poorly distributed.

Also, everything is coming in through San Juan. Strange, considering there is a former naval air station (with docks) in the east of the island, a former Air Force base in its northwestern side, a port in the city of Mayaguez, a useless port and a regional airport in the southern city of Ponce. Perhaps a better strategy would be regionalizing aid and coordinating it coming in through these various entry points.

Security is also a concern. People were desperate and getting aggressive. There was also anecdotal evidence of mugging, people preying on the elderly, looting, perforating vehicles’ gas tanks to steal it. People couldn’t call the police or 911 because there was a total collapse of mobile communications, with the cellular reception in San Juan spotty at best.

Emergency services took hours to respond, the operative question: Is he or she bleeding? No? Then it’s not a priority, it’ll have to wait. In all this chaos Puerto Rico’s Emergency Management director had the temerity to say that the people will have to make do without the government for 72 hours.

First, it is a disturbing statement considering our society is on the brink of collapse. Second, it is irresponsible; everybody read, heard or watched that statement, including a Puerto Rico that exists but nobody talks about, the one that lurks in the shadows and feasts on anti-social behavior.

Finally, it is also inaccurate. It’s been more than a week since that statement and government is still struggling to barely have a presence. The only reason we haven’t plunged into the state of nature is simply because people, most of us at least, still adhere to the rules and the social contract.

But in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic path, only two words describe the state of Puerto Rico’s governmental response: a monumental failure. With that, there’s barely a civil or institutional thread to hang on to.

In this emergency, Puerto Rico’s government should admit its limits in handling the emergency (they have) and ask for federal troops (they did). The streets should be full of soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen, alongside their respective military police, logistics and engineering units assisting governor Rossello in making this country operable and safe.

I’m no friend of the state of exception, but I don’t see any other option. This is a colony of the United States, full of American citizens. We are not disenfranchised, but the response is as if we were. They should have at least pretended to give a damn.

So where was the government. Where?