When Governor Ricardo Rosselló warned citizens about the destructive capacity of Hurricane Maria, he knew exactly what was coming. And although he was well aware of the consequences of the atmospheric monster that hit the Island, going out and verifying the level of devastation affected him emotionally.
He was troubled, as everyone, but the impact on him is higher because he bears the titanic responsibility for rising Puerto Rico up after the catastrophe, the consequences left by Maria and those that are about to appear. He is the one who has to give explanations to the Island.
“This is an unprecedented catastrophe. If I anticipated that this could happen? Sure ... I visualized it because my job as governor is to ensure that people are safe and I have to anticipate the worst scenario ... But when I see it, it keeps affecting me emotionally. The problems we have faced in the recovery -I could anticipate some of them, others were difficult to anticipate- they are lessons," said Rossello.
Which picture of the many you have have seen touring the affected areas remains in your mind?
-An image that will never leave me was mothers with their children and babies crying for help, on a roof, under the rain in Levittown flooding. That will never be erased from my mind.
With his eyes reddened by the the fatigue of the work he did before, during and after the colossal cyclone, the governor received El Nuevo Día in a hall of the Convention Center, which served as an office being the head of the Emergency Operations Center.
He spoke aout what he has seen, about the complexity of logistics, of the disaster equation faced by Puerto Rico, the lobby in Washington along with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez.
He spoke about the stage where Puerto Rico is, of its projections and of the visit tomorrow Tuesday of the President of the United States, Donald Trump. He talked about the Island´s needs for its reconstruction, both in personnel and in federal funds, and about the Puerto Rico he envisages for the future.
For Rosselló, the visit of the US President has a monumental importance because it will address three crucial aspects: the message to Congress (from where aid packages are prepared), moral support to the federal forces on the Island and for Puerto Ricans, 3.4 million American citizens, to know that they are not alone or abandoned.
What do you expect tomorrow (today) from Donald Trump's visit?
-The visit is a sign that he (Trump) is committed to Puerto Rico... If he comes under circumstances like these, it is because there is a commitment to help to the recovery of the Island. If not, the result would be adverse for the Executive, if there is a commitment and then it cannot be executed. I think it's an important step. I addition, three days later the vice president will also come. There is a commitment of the administration to work with the American citizens who live in Puerto Rico and to be able to rise up.
What is the message of this visit beyond economic commitment?
-It's important for the federal agents who are here and the military, because you have to recognize that these people are also human beings. Sometimes it is difficult to put it in that context, but it is real. For example, those people of FEMA have gone through Harvey, Irma and now Maria. As well as our police and civil servants, those of the Electric Power Authority are tired. The President has reiterated his appreciation for the efforts being made by these federal agents and the military. The fact that he is coming here to see and motivate them is important. It is also important for the people of Puerto Rico. The hard part of this is that, no matter what you do, there are people who are going to be difficult to reach or who will feel neglected, and the worst feeling you can have is to feel that the government has forgotten about you. The visit of the President does not mean that there is going to be a change for everyone, but it does show the level of importance for a person, an “they do care” feeling, that the most powerful person in the world cares about what is happening in Puerto Rico.
How many resources are needed for reconstruction? How much is needed for that? What does it take to make a substantial difference of $ 10 billion?
-I do not think that number is even close. It is higher than $ 50 billion or $ 60 billion. To put you in context, Houston was asking for $ 100 billion and they went through a Category 3 hurricane. Florida was at $ 45 billion or $ 50 billion. This is a more severe, wider devastation. The whole Island was devastated. The primary infrastructure was destroyed as well. In Florida, there was no power and there was damage, for example, and they brought 32,000 assets from other states, began to build, and in a matter of two weeks, with a modern infrastructure and with much less impact, they did it.
How many people are needed to help? How many military would it take to see a quick difference in the recovery process?
-I cannot say a number now, but it is going to be a lot. I am going to tell you the capabilities we need: the security area, which already has New Jersey and New York troops; engineers, crews, those can be military or from companies of electric energy or aqueducts. They are going to be thousands.
Fifty thousand is a conservative number?
-Yes, because you have to rebuild the power grid. That is a great challenge and I know that I am moving ahead, but it represents the opportunity to do it well, more modern, and that the final result will be for the benefit to the people of Puerto Rico.
Have you already spoken to President Trump about the amount of personnel that has to be transferred to Puerto Rico and the money that has to be invested for the reconstruction?
- I have begun to speak about that with Senators and Congress members because they will decide on the allocation. I have given them a figure that may be higher. In fact, some of the estimates are that it can reach $ 80 and $ 90 billion. I have not talked to him about numbers, but I have told him that there are four components that are important to me in this aid package.
Which are they?
-That Puerto Rico be treated like other states, that we are American citizens and that, in a disaster, you cannot build half a house or a highway, you have to build it completely. Puerto Rico should be treated the same way as if this had happened in Texas, it means that the level of devastation is attended to.
What about the deteriorating fiscal situation?
- Yes, that is another of the components, that the federal package is flexible, particularly at the beginning. We all know the fiscal situation of Puerto Rico. There is no money in the Treasury. We have made a huge effort to put $ 2 billion in the coffer. But let me tell you what $ 2 billion means when you have zero collection: it is basically a month of government payment, maybe a little bit more. We will not have collections in the coming months and one has to take into consideration that we have to make spendings in the emergency. Besides, we have a government that has to operate and, on top of that, we have some responsibilities like the payment of pensions. If there is no flexibility or recognition of that flexibility, we will not be able to operate, and that is why it is urgent, because if we continue to spend the money we have, we will not have money in the coffer.
If you do not act with that flexibility, when would you run out of liquidity?
-By mid or the end of October probably. That is why it is important, and I trust that senators and representatives will take that action. I have spoken personally with Republicans and Democrats, from Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, to Chuck Schumer and Cory Booker. They all agree that this has to be done. If it is done by the first week of October, we will be able to go on. If it is not done, we will be totally weakened, unable to function.
So the red bottom is to be activated this week if this does not happen?
-I think that, by the second week of October, this has to be settled. This is right now.
What other issues will you discuss with Trump?
-We must have 100% exemption of the payment to long term expenses... to be able to rebuild without depending on anyone. And also, that Puerto Rico, due to the fiscal situation, has no longer access to markets and therefore we cannot borrow money. We have asked him to find a way for the Federal Reserve and the Treasury to find out how to give Puerto Rico loans with reasonable interests.
Are these the four crucial points?
-Yes, these are the main points that must be in that piece of legislation. And this week, as we move out of the emergency, you will see me devoted to that. But I have already spoken with a quarter of the Senate, and without exception, everyone is committed to at least a great part of that vision.
Like Rossello, Resident Commissioner in Washington maintains intense lobbying at congressional level, both with the Republican and Democrat wings, as well as the White House. The efforts of both of them are vital in this critical moment of the island.
If we divide the catastrophe into phases, how long can one say we will be in the emergency stage, in the stabilization phase and when we can start a reconstruction process? What stage are we in and how long could it last?
-We're in an emergency stage. I hope that, by next week, we are moving from emergency to stability. We are in an emergency stage because we are still in danger of losing lives as they do not have access to water or because they do not have the services to operate a hospital, because people cannot access dialysis services. My expectation is that once we have enough supplies and logistics to get food and water to all parts of Puerto Rico, once we have telecommunications somewhat activated, it does not have to be 100%, but it has to be reactivated in many parts of Puerto Rico, once we feel comfortable about resume of operations in hospitals and that they are in priority to have diesel, that people can have access to get money, to buy food, then, we can say we are in a phase of stability.
What defines this phase of stability?
-In stability, moving people from shelters, which has already begun, but somewhat more concerted, where it is identified that people can return home or if we need temporary housing, temporary shelter and FEMA acts for temporary rental. As we do work on that, we have the schools. For me, that is the most important point in stability. Although we are in critical phase, we can already reestablish the education system, and that helps us in multiple ways. Not only do we go back to educate our children and, facing the possible traumas that the family and the children have had, we begin to establish a rhythm of normality. For me, the safest thing in that stage of stability is when we see the school system flowing. It is what is going to tell us that we are there. Reconstruction is the next step, I do not know how much that phase is going to take us.
Do you have a projection?
- I would like it to be next month... I already visualize that we would be starting a little next week, that we will be making that transition. It does not implythat classes will begin, it implies that, when we are more advanced in that phase of stability, classes would begin and then the reconstruction stage starts.
What would define it?
-When people have access to normal resources, that more shops start to open and work begins to have a certain normality, since some specific areas could have power. Devastation in PREPA is severe and it will take a long time to restore it, but punctual generation, as it has been done so far, we are about 50%, can be done. We can provide power to some areas and be able to put some generators in priority ones. When that happens, we begin to execute what would be large-scale reconstruction, and that is what we are talking about on the scale of years. The initial conditions will dictate how that reconstruction will be.
What level of frustration do you fell right now? What failed in that initial plan? There are still many towns where people claim water, food, medical services that do not arrive.
- Frustration has to do with the fact that here the truth is that the federal government has responded like in few occasions and in an affirmative way. Everything I have asked the president he has promoted it - and national level we are in different parties. Everything I have asked state governments, 17 of them at the moment, has been given to us. If you do not put all the contexts, you can not see the magnitude.
The governor is talking about the combination of elements that came together to bring about total chaos. Two hurricanes, Irma and Maria, in two weeks. The first one did not caused much damage, but it affected Puerto Rico's crumbling and ancestral electrical power system. The second, on September 2, crossed the island with a devastating force devastating the 78 municipalities. In fact, it is the tenth strongest cyclone in history. In addition to this fatal equation, weakened energy system, which lacked efficient maintenance, to the point that, with a light blow or with rains, the light went off on parts of the island. Maria devastated it, to the point that 100% of the country was left without power and today only 5% of the customers have electricity. That caused that, as government, there are not options to provide connection to all the people who need it to survive. Along with that, like the domino effect, telecommunications were lost and vulnerability of the road infrastructure appeared when secondary and tertiary roads were significantly damaged, in some cases to the extent that they can never be restored. In addition, the island depends on the ports and airports to be open and in good condition.
-The airport was devastated and radars were not working. The bandwidth, so that the planes could come to Puerto Rico, was limited to the schedule and to what the provisional radars that they had could see, that translated between 10% and 17% of the normal load ... There are several days there, with zero access to external resources, limited by the devastation of the road system of Puerto Rico, with no communication with anyone and that, even the radio, which was our plan B, failed, as well as satellite phones, " said the governor .
Why did it happen?
-Because the infrastructure fell.
Are we at the level of the humanitarian crisis you anticipated? The reality is that there are still many communities without water or food, and they are asking for it.
-We are in an emergency, which is a humanitarian crisis that may be temporary. When you talk about humanitarian crisis in that context, it is more sustained. Obviously, it is a crisis when someone has no food or water, no energy for their basic needs and when you do not have access to dialysis and basic needs, and we have to overcome it. But that period was going to happen to anyone who was in our position, in our conditions. We may have a public health crisis soon. The most obvious that comes out is chikungunya, zika or dengue. If the issue of biowaste is not properly addressed, if we do not work to make sewers work properly, we're going to have a huge health problem, and that's not easy to attend to. It can be avoided if we work on minimizing or eliminating them, but if you leave it, it becomes a problem that will take a long time to solve, above all the other problems you have in Puerto Rico.
When we talk about the levels of frustration, the fact that there are no ways to distribute what is on the docks is at the top of your list?
-The biggest problem is logistics, there's no doubt about it. In Puerto Rico there is diesel and more diesel comes and the same with gasoline and food. On Saturday we received ships bringing 214 vans with food and water: ??2.4 million liters of water, 1.3 million food services…
But if it stay there at the docks, the situation is the same.
Exactly, but that is increasing, although last Thursday it was my main concern because I was focused exclusively on it. Now we have to mitigate medical needs to people we have not reached yet, to ensure that water and food are available to the entire population. Again, there are people who are going to get sick from what has happened, from what they have been consuming, and we have to be prepared for it. The issue of public health is one that worries me facing the next two weeks because of the exponential potential it may have against the safety of our people.
How do you envisage the new Puerto Rico after this catastrophe?
-A new Puerto Rico must be built. With every action we take, especially at the beginning, we have to consider what the long-term effect is and what provides greater flexibility for a better performance when this process of reconstruction for the people of Puerto Rico ends. When we talk about electric power, if we do the same, we are providing a poor service to the people of Puerto Rico. Spending a year rebuilding and doing the same is not the solution. I have some ideas, but I am willing to examine others. We see that, from Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook; Tesla (corporation), (of Elon Musk), are betting on helping us.
This goes far beyond electric power, smart cities, more appropriate building codes. It must be recognized that there are flood prone areas where people should not be living, period. And we must take these people to other areas to protect them. We have the opportunity to reconfigure an internet network that is more accessible and reach all corners of Puerto Rico. We have an opportunity to see all these isolated communities and the fragility of the roads and ask ourselves the questions: Should they be there? Is there an easier way to rebuild a connection to these communities? That's why we have to bet on the future.
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