Hope glimmers for a just recovery in Puerto Rico

Whether from ineptitude, political calculation (Puerto Rico votes largely Democratic), racist inclinations, or some combination of the these and other factors, President Trump has paid little attention to Puerto Rico's recovery from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria last September.

As for Congress, some Republicans see the island's weak, damaged electrical grid as an opportunity to take its debt-laden power utility from public to private, and locking the island in to decades of dependence on imported natural gas for generation. "I would love to see more natural gas ports," Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told The Intercept, "They could be either stationary or terminals that float, as we have in other areas of the world."

A bombshell report on Hurricane Maria's true cost in American lives briefly flared into national news early this week, but faded almost completely away within a day. "The watchdog group Media Matters for America calculated that cable news networks covered Roseanne Barr’s tweet and her show’s cancellation 16 times as much as the deaths of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico," reports Columbia Journalism Review.

So I'm devoting this week's (de)regulation nation to environmental, resilience and energy news out of Puerto Rico. Mood management warning: Much bad, some better and good. One great.


bad: Harvard study spikes Hurricane Maria's death toll on Puerto Rico to more than 4,500 victims

  • The official count of deaths caused in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria is 64.

  • But a new study by a Harvard research team states the storm killed as many as 4,645 people on the island between September 20 (the day it hit) and December 31, 2017

  • About one-third of victims died because of interruptions or delays in medical care following the storm, according to the study.

  • The researcher team's process for gathering data — they surveyed residents of Puerto Rico, making sure not to neglect rural areas  — means that there's a wide margin of error for that total count: The death toll could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498. 

  • Such high numbers of victims "underscore the inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico," they stated.

  • For perspective: Just over 1,800 people are known to have died during or as a result of 2005's Hurricane Katrina; and Katrina was the deadliest storm in the U.S. since the Okeechobee hurricane of 1928, a year when this country's disaster response capabilities were a fraction of their contemporary strength.

  • Read more:

While Puerto Rico government officials have stood by their official death count, San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has denounced both the Trump administration and the island's political elite for their failure to save more lives. “These people were killed by the neglect of two governments,” Cruz said on the CBS This Morning TV show. “One: the Trump administration that was very dismissive of the value of our lives. And two: those in Puerto Rico that favored political positioning rather than telling the truth.”

Puerto Rican residents and journalists were not surprised by the revised victim count, "Ever since the Category 4 hurricane destroyed much of the island's infrastructure on September 20, 2017, Puerto Ricans were telling the stories of the deaths of friends and neighbors to one another," writes Latino USA senior digital editor Julio Ricardo Varela for NBC Think.

also bad: Army Corps botched early relief effort that could have saved thousands of homes

  • Around 60,000 homes needed temporary roofs made of plastic sheeting after Hurricane Maria to protect them from further damage.

  • The Army Corps of Engineers' "Blue Roof" program exists solely to supply these roofs in the wake of destructive storms.

  • But the system failed in the wake of Maria, with the Corps finishing just 439 roofs in the first 30 days after the storm, and just 30,000, half of what was needed, in the first 100 days after.

  • Thousands of homes that could have been saved were damaged beyond repair as a result.

  • Read more in this joint investigation by Frontline and NPR

bad, but probably not forever: Puerto Rico's forests face long recovery

  • According to NASA aerial surveys done with super-high-resolution imaging equipment, the forests of Puerto Rico have yet to significantly recover from Hurricane Maria.

  • About 50 percent of the forest canopy shows damage; normally about 1 percent would be damaged from year to year.

  • “Every forest type we observed has clear signs of damage from the hurricane,” NASA earth scientist Doug Morton told a reporter.

  • Read more: Earther on the survey, featuring many impressive NASA images

better: Energy Department-funded startup helping Puerto Rico plan grid resilience

  • A project funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is working with Puerto Rico's monopoly power provider to rebuild with future storm resilience in mind.

  • The project, Prosumer Grid, develops "software to simulate how power would be distributed across a grid that connects to non-traditional sources, like solar panels, wind turbines and battery systems."

  • The New York State Smart Grid Consortium, which is part of the state's effort to sharply increase energy efficiency and renewable energy sources in the next two decades, is collaborating on the project as well.

  • Encouraging as all this sounds, the current state of the island's grid is precarious. Despite a $3.8 billion federal repair effort, "The grid is there, but the grid isn't there. It's teetering," said Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico's commissioner of public safety. "Even if it's a (Category) 1, it is in such a state that I think we're going to lose power. I don't know for how long."

  • Read more:

good: Feds grant more aid money to bolster Puerto Rico's broadband, mobile network

  • The Federal Communications Commission has approved $51.2 million in funding for improving Puerto Rico's landline, mobile, and broadband communications infrastructure.

  • The FCC also opted not to claw back $65.8 in 2017 emergency aid to the island by cutting future telecommunications support payments.

  • The U.S. Virgin Islands will also get an extra $13 million towards its own communications system recovery.

  • FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel criticized the agency for failing "to hold any public hearings to discuss this communications disaster in the affected area. The FCC refused to do even a basic report as we have done in the past."

  • Read more: Endgadget on the FCC's funding approval

great: local innovators fight to build Puerto Rico back sustainably

  • The Puerto Rican nonprofit ConPRmetidos has crowdfunded over $3.5 million for locally-based efforts to recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.

  • In the first weeks after the storm, the group helped other local organizations, businesses and communities by supplying satellite phones, batteries, power generators and water purification systems.

  • Now it is working to "build back better," installing solar energy panels on buildings and training a small workforce to build back roofs that are designed to better withstand future storms.

  • "We have to make sure that the disparity among social sectors doesn't increase after this rebuilding process happens. We have to be sure to be inclusive," says ComPRmetidos founder Isabel Rullán.

  • Read more: