Puerto Rico’s Latest Man-Made Disaster

Centuries of colonialism as well as Trump-era corruption have led to a new humanitarian crisis.

An old man backlight by a street light slumps with his hand over his face in a parking lot.
A man sits on a camping chair at a tent city shelter in a baseball stadium parking lot in Yauco, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday, after a powerful earthquake hit the island. Ricardo Arduengo/Getty Images

This article was adapted from Jonathan M. Katz’s newsletter, The Long VersionSubscribe at katz.substack.com.

I don’t know if we needed a seismic metaphor for the state of America’s empire, but the ground under Puerto Rico is giving us one.

Hundreds of tiny earthquakes have rattled the main island’s south coast since mid-December. Most have been barely perceptible, but the relentless shaking is taking a toll. Thousands of people have left their homes, fleeing landslides and in fear of what’s to come. The strongest so far, a 6.4-magnitude tremor on Jan. 7, killed at least one elderly man. It also knocked out the island’s largest power plant, Costa Sur. The commonwealth’s electrical authority said it could take a year to fix.

President Donald Trump’s reaction has been keeping with the active hostility he’s shown throughout his presidency to the millions of U.S. citizens in the territory, which has only grown worse since he was criticized for his callous, fatal response to Hurricane Maria in 2017. He took weeks to declare a major disaster, but not before his administration tightened the screws on Puerto Rico even more, suspending its legally mandated $15-an-hour minimum wage for relief work and inexplicably blocking any spending on the electrical grid.

Disasters, it’s often said, are never really natural. They’re formed in the friction between geologic forces, human frailty, and the environments we build (or don’t). Puerto Rico, a centuries-old product of slavery and colonialism, has spent the past 121 years as a colony of the United States. In recent years, the territory has effectively been the victim of an internal offshoring pump-and-dump scheme. The federal government encouraged mainland businesses to relocate to the islands with a series of tax breaks, then allowed the territorial government to borrow money for infrastructure by issuing tax-exempt bonds. Then it pulled out the rug, ending the tax breaks, and forcing Puerto Rico to turn to ever-riskier bonds from mainland banks, many of whom have been sued for underwriting them.

Puerto Rico’s unrepresented population was never given any say. The seven-member Financial Oversight and Management Board created by President Barack Obama implemented a strict austerity regime. Corrupt local officials siphoned what was left.

The result has been a 43 percent poverty rate, higher than all but six of the 3,142 counties tracked in the states by the U.S. Census Bureau. This in turn sparked a death spiral as people fled the islands. From 2009 to 2017, Puerto Rico’s population fell by 12 percent.

That’s when Hurricanes Irma and Maria plowed through. Supercharged by global warming, the later storm was particularly ferocious. Still, much like the earthquake swarm, damage to buildings was minimal. The real disaster—what cost the lives of most of the 2,650 to 3,290 people killed—was the blackout.

The storms exposed something Puerto Rican engineers had known for years: The island’s electrical infrastructure is old, inadequate, and obscenely set up. Seventy percent of the main island’s electricity generation is in the south, in decrepit facilities such as Costa Sur, an oil-and-gas behemoth built from 1962 to 1973. Seventy percent of the energy is used, on the other hand, in the north, primarily in the San Juan metro area. The system depends on a precarious, 1,100-mile-long system of transmission lines, running over the mountains in between.

When I was in Puerto Rico just after Maria, everyone involved in the response agreed: The priorities were to get the electrical grid working as quickly as possible but also rebuild it in a way that would last. Mike Byrne, the head coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in that disaster, told me: “We should take a breath and do it the right way when we build it back, you know? … Looking at this ’50s and ’60s technology, we’ve made some advances. It would be a sin not to take advantage of what we’ve learned since then and build that into the system.”

Instead, Trump’s administration and his preferred allies in the Puerto Rican government frittered away time, money, and people’s lives. The reconstruction was so shoddy it didn’t even need a geologic disaster to tip it over. In April 2018, seven months after the storm, a piece of construction equipment tripped a wire, plunging the entire island back into darkness.

That this would happen was predictable from the start. As Trump and Congress withheld more than half of the $40 billion obligated for hurricane relief, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority awarded a $300 million, closed-bid contract to a tiny, troubled electric contractor, the only discernible qualification of which was that it was headquartered in then Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tiny hometown of Whitefish, Montana. The contract was canceled once the public became aware of it, but not before the contractor had overcharged wildly for man-hours and expenses. Zinke resigned a year later under a cloud of other corruption investigations.

And Whitefish Energy hasn’t even proven to be the most blatantly corrupt electrical contract of the relief effort. Another brand-new company, Cobra Acquisitions LLC, secured at least $1.8 billion in federally reimbursable contracts to rebuild the electrical grid. This past September, federal agents arrested Cobra’s former president, Donald Keith Ellison, along with Ahsha Tribble, FEMA’s former deputy administrator for Puerto Rico, who led the energy infrastructure recovery under Byrne, and Jovanda R. Patterson, a former FEMA deputy chief of staff. Three face charges including conspiring to commit bribery and disaster fraud.

Cobra is a subsidiary of Oklahoma-based Mammoth Energy Services, which specializes in servicing “companies engaged in the exploration and development of onshore unconventional oil and gas reserves.” It had no previous electrical infrastructure experience. In a quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mammoth admitted its losses on the U.S. mainland had been “partially offset by earnings from … operations in Puerto Rico,” pending the resolution of the criminal case.

Ellison’s lawyer told the Washington Post that the indictment “criminalizes normal business and personal relationships that are not criminal under the law.” A FEMA spokesperson confirmed to me that Tribble is still a FEMA employee. Asked if she still has any responsibilities or power to assign contracts, the agency responded that it “cannot comment on personnel matters.”

The links don’t stop there. Mammoth has paid at least $390,000 over the past two years to the D.C. lobbying firm Akin Gump, according to the database at the Center for Responsive Politics. One of the Akin Gump lobbyists working for Mammoth, Karen Goldmeier Green, also represents several Puerto Rican clients, including the conservative-leaning Puerto Rico Statehood Council.

She also represents Empresas Fonalledas, the company of San Juan real estate mogul Jaime Fonalledas, which paid Akin Gump at least $6 million since 2009 as part of a multifront lobbying effort in favor of the fiscal austerity bill and creation of the Oversight Board.* (The author Nelson Denis has theorized that Fonalledas, a major GOP donor, was trying to protect his investment in Puerto Rico bonds from bankruptcy.)

Green did not respond to emails asking for comment about the links between her clients.

These cycles of incompetence and greed have produced endless irony. The austerity crisis led to budget cuts at the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, which is now entrusted with monitoring the earthquake swarm.

More significantly, frustration over the corruption and fecklessness of the hurricane recovery—including an apparent influence-peddling scheme regarding post-hurricane contracts—led to massive protests and the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. The territory has been through two acting governors since.

“It is no wonder that bridges are now collapsing,” the Puerto Rican scholars Yarimar Bonilla and José Caraballo-Cueto wrote in the New York Daily News.*

It wasn’t lost on many that Puerto Rico’s earthquake season has coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti. Haiti’s quake was a far larger disaster, releasing eight times more energy than the largest in Puerto Rico so far, and unimaginably more deadly. But they do have some elements in common: the hubris of the response and the hypocritical shifting of blame for corruption from Washington to the client governments representing populations of color.

One other detail reminiscent of that earlier disaster is confusion over earthquake terminology. Namely: Should the temblors terrifying Puerto Ricans and exacerbating the exodus of people from the island be called “aftershocks,” “foreshocks,” or a “swarm?” That all depends, the U.S. Geological Survey says.

“Aftershocks” are just smaller quakes that come after a larger quake. If it turns out that the true catastrophe is yet to occur, then everything that came before will be recategorized as “foreshocks.” It’s only looking back that you can really take the measure of what’s happened.

Correction, Jan. 17, 2020: This article originally misspelled Jaime Fonalledas’ and Yarimar Bonilla’s last names.