As he arrived in Puerto Rico to inspect local relief efforts—on the same day the first American hospital ship reached the island, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria shattered its infrastructure—Donald Trump dismissed the extent of the disaster by comparing it to a past major storm on the U.S. mainland.
Meeting local leaders along with other federal officials, Trump thanked Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló for praising him, CBS News reports, commenting that Rosselló “didn’t play politics. He told it like it was, gave us the highest marks.” It was a barely-concealed jab at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has sharply criticized how slowly relief has arrived, and shrugged off other critical comments tweeted by the U.S. president.
- Concise headlines. Original content. Timely news and views from a select group of opinion leaders. Special extras.
- Everything you need, nothing you don’t.
- The Weekender: The climate news you need.
Trump also appeared to minimize Maria’s impact, comparing the hurricane’s death toll on the island favourably with that of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died. And you look at what happened here. What is your death count? Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud.”
Trump’s response to Maria had been criticized for failing to show compassion—in one tweet he appeared to insist that the bankrupt American territory must settle its debt to Wall Street, regardless of the damage it has suffered. Yesterday, he complained to leaders of the Caribbean territory that “I have to tell you, Puerto Rico, you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
As relief efforts slowly began to move out across the island, however, more than half of its citizens remained without electric power or cell phone service. According to Vox, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers colonel leading the U.S. Recovery Field Office for Puerto Rico compared the scene on the ground to what his corps faced after the United States levelled Iraq’s infrastructure as part of its 2003 invasion of that country,
With the federal aid effort finally appearing to gear up, analysts turned to two implications of the post-Maria landscape: one for Puerto Rico’s power grid, the other for America’s balance of power.
Tesla was the first company off the mark, but other players in the distributed, renewable energy, and microgrid sectors were quick to seize an opportunity for philanthropy that could also turn into business when the island rebuilds its electrical grid.
First, “Tesla announced it would send Powerwall storage packs to help restore power” on the island, Greentech Media reports. Then, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) announced it was working to coordinate efforts by several of its members to donate equipment and installation services.
“That’s what is different today than during the Haiti earthquake, or some other disasters recently. The solar industry is just much larger,” said Generate Capital President Jigar Shah. “We have the ability to do things we weren’t previously able to do.”
The storm also demonstrated the benefits of distributed renewable generation over long-distance grids fed by big centralized power plants, Greentech notes. “Of the 88 megawatts of distributed solar and 127 megawatts of utility-scale solar generation already installed in Puerto Rico, most systems remain intact, but damaged,” it writes, citing Shah but adding the caution that “GTM has not verified the health of solar systems in the territory.”
As Shah observed, however, “it’s easier to bring all this back up after it’s been down when you have this more localized solution set. You will have a lot of damage, but all the point sources are independent of each other. It doesn’t take the whole grid down.” For the future, he said, microgrids could return power to critical facilities like “hospitals, shelters, and stores carrying supplies,” faster than reconnecting all the broken lines of a wide grid.
Meanwhile, several news outlets anticipated that the enormous damage suffered by buildings, farms, businesses, and infrastructure may drive an exodus of islanders to the mainland United States. “Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, maybe more, are expected to permanently move into Florida as a result of Hurricane Maria,” the Washington Post writes.
That could produce a political earthquake in what the paper described as “the swingiest of swing states.”
“Puerto Ricans moving to the 50 states is nothing new,” Fortune Magazine agrees. “It’s one of the rights that come with citizenship. The heavily indebted island lost nearly 7% of its population between 2010 and 2015 as its economy worsened. And many Puerto Rican emigrants are likely to choose Florida, the nearest soil on the American mainland.”
It’s also state where in 2016, Donald Trump “beat Hillary Clinton by an election-deciding 112,911-vote margin,” the business news outlet notes. “The arrival of 100,000 people from Puerto Rico probably wouldn’t have swung the election to Clinton, but it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where those new votes could be pivotal.”