The Ongoing Misery of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, which hit the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, remains slow and spotty with continued power outages, unsafe water and school closings, reports Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

It’s been nearly seven weeks since Hurricane Maria shredded the island of Puerto Rico and, still, conditions for millions of Puerto Ricans remain grim and barely livable. Thousands are still stuck in shelters, while many others remain in their homes with limited access to electricity and clean water.

Puerto Rican residents walk in flooded streets in Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 22, 2017, following Hurricane Maria. (Puerto Rico National Guard photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos)

Last Thursday, large swaths of San Juan were again without power and those without their own independent generators were thrown into darkness with little support. Once again, heavy rains flooded out the streets of San Juan, creating the conditions for various water-borne diseases like cholera to proliferate.

I spoke with attorney and human rights activist Judith Berkan about conditions on the Island, even as federal troops prepare to leave the struggling U.S. territory.

Dennis Bernstein: Tell us about your day today.

Judith Berkan: I had two court hearings and in the middle of the first one, which was in the federal court, we became aware that there had been a major blackout throughout the north coast of Puerto Rico.  This one is supposed to last between twelve and eighteen hours.  The system gets overloaded and then it goes out again.

Tuesday night there were incredible storms here in Puerto Rico.  Because we don’t have electricity, the pumps to drain water from the drains are not functioning.  One of the attorneys at the first hearing had actually been pulled out of her car during the awful rains.  In the afternoon, after getting out of my first court hearing, I called the court regarding my second hearing, which is an injunction to try to save people’s wages during the hurricane aftermath.  When we got there, we had five minutes of generator power to be able to reschedule the hearing.

There are a lot of labor issues going on.  People are losing their jobs, businesses are closing, people are not getting paid for days they work.  Some businesses have paid their workers even if they could not come in, but those are exceptional cases.

There has been an inaccurate counting of deaths.  The official number is 55 right now but every day you hear of situations where people are dying and whether they are attributed to the storm or not is a matter of great controversy.  So many health and mental health issues are connected to the storm.  The nursing homes are without air conditioning.  There are four confirmed deaths from leptospirosis but we suspect there are a lot more.

Dennis Bernstein: The Army or the National Guard announced today that they are going to be removing one-third or one-half their forces because “they have other jobs to do.” I guess they are not done, though, are they?

Judith Berkan: No, not at all.  I can’t say there have been no improvements since September 20.  There is less debris around the streets.  We are now at 42% of generator capacity.  You get power for a time, then it goes away again.  So there is no predictability in our lives.  Today the entire San Juan area was out and, from what I understand, the entire north coast.  And this is fifty days after the hurricane.  And remember that about ten days before Maria we had hurricane Irma, which knocked out the electricity to a good portion of the country.  So there have been a lot of people who have not had electricity since Labor Day.

Dennis Bernstein: I assume that people on the outer islands are in even worse shape.

Judith Berkan: It’s a lot worse and delivering supplies is a lot worse.  We also have very mountainous terrain in the middle of the main island and there are still barrios there which have not seen a single government official or even private institutions.

Dennis Bernstein: We also know that there is quite a substantial exodus from the island, people heading to Florida and New York.

Judith Berkan: Yes, about 100,000 people have already gone to Florida, out of a population of 3.5 million.  Today FEMA said they would be giving passage to people to stay in hotels outside of Puerto Rico.  A lot of our hotels were destroyed and the others are filled with military personnel and FEMA people, etc.  So far only 300 families have accepted the offer.  About 25% of people are still without water.

The school situation is devastating.  There have been some very arbitrary decisions as to which schools will open and which will not.  We fear that it has to do with preexisting plans to privatize the school system.  Schools with very strong community bases have been excluded from this reopening process.  Yesterday there were arrests of nineteen teachers from the teachers’ union who were protesting at the superintendent’s office.  I don’t know what has happened with their charges.

Dennis Bernstein: A lot of people are out of work now.

Judith Berkan: Old San Juan has been dark.  It has something like 900 to 1,000 businesses, which are almost all locally owned.  Yesterday it was announced that one of the major music clubs is closing.  There are major factories and major shopping centers which have not reopened.  Meanwhile, we all have more expenses than we used to have, because everything is getting more and more expensive and the Jones Act was suspended for only ten days.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at

20 comments for “The Ongoing Misery of Puerto Rico

  1. Laurie
    November 16, 2017 at 21:32

    I feel for the people of Puerto Rico, but they were in trouble long before this. Corruption and brain drain has bankrupt the country and destroyed their economy. They should be independent and be a part of the Caribbean….they are not the US, they are a territory, and are essentially a completely different culture and mind set. Help them get back on their feet and then be done with them.

  2. Christene
    November 15, 2017 at 08:54

    Well, where are Bill and Hillary and their merry band of billionaire thieves….errr….donors that make up the Clinton Foundation to save the day?? After all, they did such a bang up job in Haiti. Just ask them.

    • November 15, 2017 at 09:19

      That is funny and true..

      • Christene Bartels
        November 15, 2017 at 09:21

        According to a report by Credit Suisse, the world’s richest 1 percent now hold over half of all the global wealth. That would be half of 280 TRILLION dollars. That is 140 TRILLION dollars held by 1% of the world wealthiest people in the world for those who had Common Core math in school.
        I’m guessing more than a few of those individuals are American tax dodging business and tech leaders with trillions sitting in off shore tax havens. Why aren’t we asking where THEY are in situations like this??
        I hear George Soros is begging Congress to not give him a tax cut. Let’s start with him.

  3. November 15, 2017 at 03:19

    it is sad yet predictable that the white powerful monies interests,i,e.,the banks and investment co.s as well as international and u,s, government entities have allowed and continue to allow puerto rico to be brought to its knees so that privatization pirates may swoop in and gobble up All the goodies starting with the education system. sounds like pist-katrina new orleans. alot of preventable death,destruction,and suffering.

    I would strongly urge the people to come together,share resources,and grow your own food! you have the climate and water,eat whole foods not processed junk.

  4. tina
    November 15, 2017 at 00:43

    no mystery at all. We do not like brown and or black people, They are not worthy , because they are lazy, they want hand outs, and we just don’t like them Easy Peasy, they are undeserving of help.

    • tina
      November 15, 2017 at 00:47

      And they have goofy last names like Rodriguez, Garcia, Salinas, Martinez, Lopez, Valdez, You get the picture.

    • November 16, 2017 at 12:04

      Has nothing to do about you being colored. It has to do about being oppressed by someone else.

    • November 16, 2017 at 12:05

      You sure are one racist dog

  5. geeyp
    November 15, 2017 at 00:41

    My sister just lost her home in the recent Texas hurricane, it was just completely gone. Since Puerto Rico is a US province, it is important also. That said, some writers don’t focus on what is happening close to home as much as they do elsewhere.

  6. Zachary Smith
    November 15, 2017 at 00:32

    One of the best things anyone can do to help this situation is purchase solar-powered LED lanterns and send them to PR. They desperately need other things, but working without light just makes things difficult. And said lanterns can’t be shipped directly there—they have to be sent to a US address and forwarded.

    I don’t understand the part about needing a US address as an intermediary. Why can’t a group in the worst part of the area simply post their address and have small stuff shipped directly to them.

    Regarding solar powered lights, that’s really an unnecessary frill. Excellent battery models are usually far less expensive, and therefore many more of them could be provided for the same expense. One exception:


    That’s a Dollar Tree solar light. Typically the battery inside is a rechargeable AAA. With a soldering iron a person can wire an external 1.5 dry cell of any size in its place. The output is dim, but with a D-cell the light ought to run day and night for many weeks.

    Now on to flashlights.


    I don’t know what to make of that $18 dollar price. In all the local stores they are sold for $1.50. Two AA batteries are not expensive, and are purchased in bricks of 8 for $1 at the DT stores. One excellent feature is the removable bulb – they can go into a much better (and larger) 2-cell flashlight as a replacement.


    Basically a fantastic deal, for these require a single D battery and keep lit for 60 hours.

    Modern flashlights have the virtues of being inexpensive and extremely safe.

    Once upon a time I thought kerosene lamps were the ticket – until I learned from my readings in history how dangerous they are. Feeble light + extreme hazards = Don’t Go There!

    Candles are an oddity. At local junk stores they’re often found when somebody does housecleaning and moves them out of the house. Assuming a person has found an inexpensive supply, they need a candle lantern. Those can be rather easily constructed. For starters, you need a wide-mouth glass container. Example:


    Also wide-mouth pickle or bologna jars. For small candles, wide-mouth quart/half gallon jars will work. For the Dollar Tree vase, cut some heavy aluminum foil into a circle an inch or more larger than the top. Use a metal washer or a US quarter to make a center tracing, then cut it out with a razor knife or small scissors. Here is what you’re after:


    Wonderful product if you find it for a buck or less – I believe these are sized for the wide mouth canning jars. The commercial prices are obscene.

    Back to the glass cylinder or jar. If the bottom isn’t perfectly flat, pour in a little fine sand so the candle will be straight. Set the candle in the exact center, then put the aluminum foil with the hole on the top with that hole also in the exact center over the wick. Lightly fold the foil down over the top edges of the glass. Take a sharp pencil and poke 6 or 8 holes at the inside rim. Carefully remove the foil, then light the candle. Replace the foil lid. What happens now is a surprise to people who have never seen a perfect candle burn. That little flame has no flickering at all, but just a steady glow. The intake air flows into the rim holes smoothly down the inside, then up with the exhaust gases. I kid you not, but the heat output is enough to boil a cup of water in a small saucepan in a few minutes. Blackout instant coffee!

    It’s not going to overwhelm with brightness, but has a steady glow which will last for a long time, and it is SAFE. At least in comparison with liquid fuels.

    People with a few power tools can make the necessary holes in screw-on metal lids of the pickle jars. A little more work, but with that lid on it would be even harder to burn down the house.

    LED flashlights best.
    Candle lanterns a distant but satisfactory second place.

    For people totally hung up on solar, consider some version of this:


    IF the thing is reliable, it could recharge the special batteries for radios and other useful disaster electronics. I’d wager the old handheld CB radios would be really useful in some parts of Puerto Rico.

    For real cooking and water heating, consider one of these:


    The rivets at the top of the unit are probably ok, but don’t consider buying one when they’re on the bottom. Modern ones have welds there, for the galvanic reaction between aluminum and stainless mean a guaranteed leak sooner or later.

  7. November 14, 2017 at 18:00

    One of the best things anyone can do to help this situation is purchase solar-powered LED lanterns and send them to PR. They desperately need other things, but working without light just makes things difficult. And said lanterns can’t be shipped directly there—they have to be sent to a US address and forwarded.

    There are Puerto Ricans hard at work collecting needed items and getting them distributed. A writer friend of mine has a list set up on Amazon rated from most desperately needed to stuff that would be great to have. She updates at least once a day on Facebook, and is outraged by the school situation, as are most of the other people there. They’ve lived under the neoliberal thumb a long time, and if something isn’t done to end it their dire situation isn’t going to stop them from reacting.

    Anyone who would like the link to Artisitikem’s help list is welcome to contact me via email.

  8. mike k
    November 14, 2017 at 15:36

    Truth is the USA doesn’t give a #!it about Puerto Rico beyond what it can rip off from them. But we have a nice name for that – we call it capitalism.

  9. Mike
    November 14, 2017 at 13:49

    Funny how majority white countries can work together and rebuild after a natural disaster. Alas, not the case here with all the brown people and their corruption.

    • dave
      November 14, 2017 at 20:45

      You realize Puerto Rico is part of the United States, right? Also, how’s Cuba doing compared to the US in terms of disaster recovery?

    • zman
      November 16, 2017 at 20:28

      You must have missed Louisiana and the Katrina mess…or the gulf oil well fiasco. Oil companies were supposed to pay the bill, but in the long run we the people did. Fema is broke and when there is a disaster, don’t look to the government for assistance, look to your neighbors, they’ll be there long before the gov. While the gov twiddled their thumbs in Texas, locals were saving people in fishing boats, just like in New Orleans. Americans are so stupid they continue to pour vast monies we cannot afford into the military, while everyday people are sucked dry of saving for a hernia repair. Today CONgress approved 700 billion for MIC, while Michigan citizens still have no real clean water…but Nestle does and so does GM. For years Exxon trucked in water to Harris co. Texas because their water would ignite…because fracking waste reservoirs are safe. Funny how some people whitewash the criminality in this country. The countries you apparently mean rebuild while padding every conceivable bill, running up the costs exorbitantly, the companies mentioned in this article are most likely white run. In case you don’t know it, eventually you and I will be paying that bill.

  10. Zachary Smith
    November 14, 2017 at 13:17

    The Lineman Got $63 an Hour. The Utility Was Billed $319 an Hour

    The Times reported that Whitefish was also billing Puerto Rico’s power authority $412 for food and lodging per worker.

    No doubt the company houses those workers in the local equivalent of a Roach Motel and pockets most of the difference.

    Puerto Rico’s disaster has been an invitation by the Free Enterprise System to rape and pillage.

    A tiny US “company” with two employees will be on the gravy train for a little while longer.

    Puerto Ricans fear that their schools are going to be privatized. No telling what other profit-making horrors are planned.


  11. Joe Tedesky
    November 14, 2017 at 12:44

    The U.S. should give Puerto Rico two months worth of the money the U.S. spends to stay bogged down in Afghanistan, and give this U.S. Island their independence. Apparently the U.S. can’t afford to continue to keep its obligations to this Annex, so at least give the Puerto Rican people their freedom to be a thriving Caribbean nation.

    • Virginia
      November 14, 2017 at 13:21

      Good idea, Joe. And don’t give the money to the big corporations (big political donors) who can then do a pretend reconstruction while laundering the money and making themselves wealthier, as in the Clintons’ “help” to Haiti. Give it directly to the people of Puerto Rico and hope they can find some honest people and workers to rebuild. Maybe this time..!

      • Joe Tedesky
        November 14, 2017 at 14:48

        Besides what you mentioned Virginia, if it is true that Donald Trump owes Puerto Rico 32 million dollars in back taxes, then monies such as this should be collected too. I picture a free and independent Puerto Rico could be a mighty prosperous Caribbean nation, if left to it’s own devises to carve out it’s own future. Although, this independence would need to be decided by the Puerto Rican people, I would think that independence would serve to only improve their situation. Joe

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