On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the island with 3.4 million residents into a desperate humanitarian crisis. The storm was the worst the island had seen in over 80 years. It had a devastating impact on the US territory, sending over 130,000 Puerto Ricans out of their homes.

Climate change played a significant role in exacerbating the situation, and existing predictions spell more devastation in the future of the island. Indeed, extreme rains the likes of Hurricane Maria are 5 times more likely to strike Puerto Rico now than in the 1950s.

The impact of the hurricane caused more than $94.4 billion in damage and led to the death of nearly 3,000 US citizens. The island lost 80% of its crop value, which was worth over $780 million.

Three years after, the island is still reeling under the effects of the hurricane. Before the huge human and economic loss as a result of the hurricane, it was already billions of dollars in debt and had fragile food-security and high poverty rates.

Unfortunately, the island isn’t getting a respite from nature as storm seasons, and other natural disasters are making the recovery process a lot harder.

When Hurricane Maria Came for Puerto Rico

Salvage crews working with the Hurricane Maria ESF-10 Puerto Rico response remove a wrecked vessel from Hurricane Maria in Sardinera, Puerto Rico, Dec. 21, 2017.

Hurricane Maria first hit the town of Yabucoa. The storm then tore through trees, cell towers, and properties. Electricity was cut off across the whole island, and it was difficult for residents to gain access to clean water and food. The flash floods and heavy rains that followed filled streets with flowing debris and sewage—with the floodwater more than 30-inches deep in some areas.

Bridges also collapsed, and residents had to cross the deeper rivers to buy water and gas. Homeowners were left stranded as only a meager 1% of them had flood insurance. Hurricane Maria hit just as the island was recovering from the impact of Hurricane Irma. The damage to Puerto Rican families and the island’s infrastructure will take a long time to repair.

In a Climate Crisis, the Poor Have the Most to Lose

On December 12 2009, while the COP15 climate negotiations were taking place in Copenhagen, around the globe people protested for an ambitious and fair climate treaty. This is a photo from the Melbourne Walk against Warming. Photo Credit: John Englart

The impacts of climate change affect everyone around the world, but poor people usually have the most to lose. Islands like Puerto Rico—where almost half the residents live below the poverty line, and unemployment is more than double the US average—are always harder hit when they come under the direct impact of our changing climate.

The 2.5 billion small scale farmers around the world rely on the climate and natural resources for food and income. In Puerto Rico, where only 6% of the land is arable, the situation is worse. The farmers relying on the meager range of farm produce are always at risk of losing their investments and future income in the event of any major weather events.

With the climate-change-induced unpredictable weather patterns and shifting seasons, these poor populations are constantly under threat of hunger and thus, increasingly dependent on humanitarian aid.

Apart from food and income, climate change also means that residents in Puerto Rico and other similar islands are constantly living a guessing game when it comes to stability. Most people are one big storm away from becoming climate change refugees.

The Human Cost of Hurricane Maria

The official death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was raised to 2,795 from 64 after an independent study found that the number of people who died in the months after the storm had been severely undercounted.

After Hurricane Maria, government officials initially put the death toll at 64. However, reports from The New England Journal of Medicine, CNN, and the Center for Investigative Journalism reported that the figures were much higher.

In August 2018, a government document finally reversed the original position, showing that the island lost more than 1,400 people during the storm and its immediate aftermath. Most of the deaths occurred in the weeks after the hurricane as a result of infrastructure failures such as water and food shortages, lack of medical care, impassable roads and the lack of electricity.

However, an independent report by George Washington University (GWU), commissioned by the Governor of Puerto Rico showed that the number of people lost to the hurricane was closer to 3000. The report triggered controversy, with President Donald Trump disagreeing with the numbers.

Hurricane Maria’s Impact on Puerto Rico’s Economy

Tucked in the old city of San Juan, Barrachina is a tourist hotspot. Most of the restaurant’s business comes from visitors hoping to sip on piña coladas and try the classic Puerto Rican dish, mofongo. After Hurricane Maria hit, Barrachina was one of almost 10,000 small businesses affected by the storm.

According to Puerto Rico’s planning board, Hurricane Maria cost the island’s economy $43 billion. They arrived at the figures through questionnaires issued to the public and the private sectors, as well as statistics provided by professional associations.

The island’s tourism industry was one of the worst-hit sectors. It makes up around 10% of the country’s economy, with 3 million people visiting attractions like Old San Juan, Rio Camuy Caves and El Yunque National Forest. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, around 30% of hotels in Old San Juan were closed. Beaches were also closed as a result of water contamination. Restaurants, boutiques, cigar shops and other such businesses either closed or began offering services at severely reduced prices.

The largest brands in the area, such as the Caribe Hilton remained closed for more than two years, only opening in June 2019 after $150 million was spent on repairs.

While Puerto Rico’s planning board put the cost to the economy of Hurricane Maria at $43, the island's governor placed the total damage from the hurricane at $94 billion. Others estimate that the price tag could end up at over $100 billion.

After Hurricane Maria, the Earthquakes

In January 2020, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit the island, even as it was nowhere near recovering from the impact of the hurricanes Maria and Irma. It was one of the most powerful earthquakes the region had seen in more than 100 years.

The disaster made an already challenging situation even more difficult. A report from the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the island’s infrastructure a D- and the island’s infrastructure an F, highlighting inadequate recovery post the hurricanes. The earthquakes have further damaged the city’s infrastructure and also slowed down an already snail-paced recovery.

The Unending Wait for Disaster Funds

At the end of the 2017 hurricane season, Congress appropriated $42 billion in aid to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. The amount was divided into $20 billion through Housing and Urban Development, $16 billion through FEMA, and the remainder through other smaller agencies. However, the island is yet to receive this full sum till date. Only $14 billion of these funds have been spent as of July 2019.

The slow response to disasters in the island from the federal government also means that the region’s recovery may take a long time. Survivors in Texas and Florida received around $100 million in assistance from FEMA within nine days of hurricanes Harvey and Irma hitting the region.  Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria survivors only received $6 million over the same period.

Puerto Rico’s Failing Infrastructure

Puerto Rico’s bridges, dams, drinking water, ports, roads and power grids are at a breaking point. As mentioned above, a report from the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the island’s infrastructure and showed that it will require a $23 billion investment over the next decade to recover.

With the slow response from the government in providing funding, there are fears that the infrastructure may remain below par well beyond the decade mark.

Other Ways Puerto Rico Is Still Struggling to Recover from Hurricane Maria

The devastation from Hurricane Maria pushed 300,000 people out of Puerto Rico, depopulating the island at a faster rate than ever.

Damage to infrastructure and the economy are not the only signs of Puerto Rico’s struggle to recover from Hurricane Maria. There are other pressing concerns that can’t be ignored on the island:

  • More than 1.2 million households asked for relief and housing assistance, with 78% of them experiencing damage to their property. In response, FEMA sent blue tarps to residents instead of permanent roofs. As at August 2019, around 30,000 households still take shelter under these temporary roofs.
  • The island is expected to lose 14% of its population, as more than 470,000 find their way into mainland US causing brain drain and leaving an aging population behind.
  • Hurricanes Maria and Irma damaged between 20 and 40 million trees on the island leading to a serious distortion of the ecosystem. A report by ousted Governor Rosello suggested that 2.4 million trees had to be planted to undo some of the negative impacts of the flora loss in the region—a number that is only a fraction of what was lost.

Conclusion

Puerto Rico’s constant battle with nature has placed it at a crossroads. It is one of the major examples of how climate change can transform a region negatively. It is embroiled in a race against time to rebuild a rapidly changing island without any defenses against more frequent natural disasters.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, protests broke out on the island after leaks showed the governor joking about victims of the hurricane. He resigned shortly after, but the island is still facing an uncertain future. With more frequent disasters, the island’s history of mismanagement and the political wrangling between the federal and local governments, the island’s recovery could take a long time.

Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.