In his final State of the State address last week, Gov. Christie listed as one of his accomplishments the state’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
He had a point. As someone who lives at Ground Zero of that storm, I have to say that the recovery was indeed quite rapid. Most of us had power restored in about two weeks.
I got thinking of that when I heard from Bill Rosenblatt that he was heading off to Puerto Rico this weekend.
Rosenblatt is a 70-year-old psychologist from Loch Arbour who has been surfing Puerto Rico since the 1960s. That’s when the island’s great waves were first discovered by a contingent of surf-explorers, many of whom were from New Jersey.
“I love the Puerto Rican people and the culture,” he told me. “When we first went down there, I found the surf in the winter is wonderful and I found a culture I really enjoyed.”
Back then, Rincon was rural. In 1973 when I rented a house there for $1 a night, it had roosters in the back yard and a cow in the front yard.
Now Rincon is a sort of surf metropolis, with a fair share of six-story high-rises. Rosenblatt owns a house in the town, which has the best surf spots on the island as well as some of the biggest crowds.
It’s not crowded now. When Rosenblatt was there in December, his house still lacked water and power – almost three months after Hurricane Maria lashed the island with winds twice as strong as Sandy’s.
The local population is almost entirely dependent on tourism, he said.
“One couple I know were petrified when the storm came,” he said. “All of their income was from a T-shirt shop, but the shop got washed out.”
Bad as it is in the tourist areas, at least they’re on the way to recovery. But power is still out on almost half of the island.
There was a story in the news last week that gave a hint why. It seems the Army Corps of Engineers raided a warehouse owned by the publicly run electricity utility to confiscate a cache of badly needed electrical equipment. The utility was hoarding the equipment even as workers sat around doing nothing for lack of materials.
Unfortunately that sort of thing is common in Puerto Rico. Even before the storm hit, the economy was falling apart and the island government had defaulted on $70 billion in debt.
Since the storm, Puerto Ricans have been fleeing to the mainland by the hundreds of thousands. Puerto Ricans don’t need passports and flights to Miami or Newark are as cheap as $150.
As they leave, the economy gets further depressed. It’s now in a death spiral, said an economist with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“Before the hurricane, the economy looked like Greece,” said Desmond Lachman. “Now, because of the hurricane, as the economy collapses their revenues are going to collapse.”
There’s no easy way out of that, he said. A lot of economists preach austerity. But austerity only works when a country has its own currency, Lachman said. That doesn’t apply to Puerto Rico, which is on the dollar, or…