One Year After Hurricane, How Puerto Rico Has Changed
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The year since Hurricane Maria has permanently transformed Puerto Rico. The storm made landfall on this day in 2017. Although many buildings have been repaired and the power is, at last, on in every part of the island, it's now clear the storm provoked lasting change and is fueling demand for more change.
Few people know this story quite like NPR's Adrian Florido, who has been based in San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital, since just after the storm on an island that is damaged, apparently less populous now, but also ripe for rebuilding.
Adrian, hi there.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So let's start with what it looks like in Puerto Rico. What are lasting changes in the landscape?
FLORIDO: One of the things that was most striking when I first arrived in Puerto Rico was how much the foliage was just completely blown off of the trees. I mean, most of the trees in Puerto Rico lost all of their leaves, and it was just this barren landscape.
Well, in the last year or so, I mean, all of those trees have rebounded. I mean, you know, Puerto Rico is the lush place it once was. But when you drive around in communities and into the mountains and along mountain roads, one thing that hasn't changed is that a lot of the houses that emptied out after the storm are still empty. They're vacant.
INSKEEP: Are a lot of those houses empty still because there are people who are just never coming back?
FLORIDO: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, Puerto Rico's population has been declining for more than a decade. It's lost hundreds of thousands of people in the last 10 years. And a lot of people also left after the storm. It's hard to say exactly how many and how many of those people have come back and haven't. But one interesting place where you get a sense of the population decline just since the storm is if you look at the schools. The island's education department says that between May of last year and the start of this school year, it expected an enrollment decline of 38,000 students in just one academic year.
INSKEEP: Thirty-eight-thousand - what percentage of the student body is that that vanished?
FLORIDO: That's about a 10 percent enrollment decline in just one year.
INSKEEP: Wow. What does that mean for a school system that was built for a certain number of students, and they don't have them anymore?
FLORIDO: Well, it means that schools have to close. And you know, one of the really sad things, Steve, is that right after the storm, I actually visited a bunch of schools that had closed because of the storm but were going to reopen and spoke with teachers who had shown up to clear away debris and repair damage to classrooms so that their students could come back as quickly as they got permission to bring them back.
And then this summer, a lot of those schools that teachers were repairing and did reopen for a little while, well, they shut down because the government closed about 260 of the island's 1,100 schools.
FLORIDO: And that's because of that plunging enrollment, both before and after the storm, as many families left for the mainland United States. What this has meant, especially in rural communities, is that many families now have to travel a lot longer distances to get to their new schools. And these are often poor families without cars and often without access to a school bus even.
INSKEEP: Wow. I'm also thinking, Adrian, about the power grid. We were told that one reason it took so very long to bring the power back on was that it was a rickety, overmatched, overburdened, old power grid. Have there been lasting changes there?
FLORIDO: Well, the power grid has been repaired. I mean, everyone who had power before the storm now has power, according to the government. But the grid is no stronger than it was before the storm. The repairs that happened were all just to get the power back on and not to actually improve it. And so one change that's on the way is that the governor announced early this year that he was going to privatize the electric grid, which is publicly run. It's been poorly run and maintained for decades, and the public electric utility is in massive debt. And Ricardo Rossello, the governor, said that the island-wide blackout was proof of how big of a mess the grid really was. And so he announced that privatization early this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RICARDO ROSSELLO: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: That was the governor speaking in a televised address. And he said that the government would sell the utility's assets to companies that would make the grid more modern and more efficient. And this was a hugely controversial move. But it was in line with much of the governor's messaging since the storm - mainly that as tragic as Hurricane Maria was, it has also presented opportunities to transform the island and its infrastructure.
INSKEEP: Is there some special problem with providing electricity across Puerto Rico in an efficient way?
FLORIDO: Well, one of the big issues is that Puerto Rico, although it's known for its beaches, it's actually a very mountainous island. And so after the hurricane, you had these crews of linemen and line workers who had to cut through really thick jungle to get to power poles in many cases. I was driving through the mountains one day, and I came across one of these crews who had flown in from Denver. And one of the guys working was a guy named Dean Breidenbach.
DEAN BREIDENBACH: The fact that all the vines have grown over stuff for six months now - all our wire is under that. Ten of them would be no problem, but 3,000 of them or 10,000 in vines, you can't just lift it up. You've got to cut it loose. It's five times harder than normal in the United States doing the same job.
FLORIDO: And then, of course, another reason, Steve, that it took so long to get the power back was that, you know, Puerto Rico's government was just not prepared for the magnitude of the damage. It didn't have the people it needed for the job. It issued bad contracts. It didn't activate these mutual aid agreements that would've brought mainland crews in for free. It was a big mess. Eventually, the federal government had to take over the restoration effort. And even then, there were problems.
INSKEEP: So I want to ask one other thing. It's taken a very long time to understand how many people apparently died as a result of this storm. What has taken so long?
FLORIDO: Yeah. I mean, this has been the biggest tragedy and controversy to come out of Hurricane Maria. People started dying the day that the storm passed. And pretty quickly, local journalists started noticing that the government's official death toll didn't agree with the reality on the ground that they were seeing in hospitals and in morgues. The government now acknowledges that about 3,000 people probably died. But for months, it deliberately withheld data that would've helped researchers and journalists arrive at that number much more quickly. And that was something that was really painful for the relatives and friends of people who died - people like Ani Sanchez - that really hurt.
ANI SANCHEZ: If you were here and you saw your neighbors die because they couldn't go down the stairs because they were too old - old people left behind. We have to count them. We have to pay respect.
FLORIDO: I interviewed Ani Sanchez at a protest - a really poignant event, actually - where people took pairs of shoes and laid them out in front of Puerto Rico's Capitol building in this really sort of stunning and sobering display of public grief.
INSKEEP: Lines of shoes. Adrian Florido of NPR News has covered the year of the aftermath since Hurricane Maria.
Adrian, thanks very much.
FLORIDO: Thank you, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.