Do Puerto Rico's Potholes - And Whitefish Deal - Foreshadow Disastrous Recovery?

Oct 25, 2017

COMMENTARY

Driving through Puerto Rico last week, my attention was often focused on the hurricane destruction all around me. And that was really stupid – because if you’re not entirely focused on the road in Puerto Rico, you’ll hit one of the island’s countless, craterous and calamitous potholes.

And, muchacho, did I ever. One car-eating cavity after another – until I struck the mother of all pavement pits on Highway 52, slicing my right front tire. As I pulled over and put on the spare, I saw another motorist pull over just ahead of me for the same reason. And then another just ahead of him.

The NASA rover doesn’t face craters on Mars as dangerous as the potholes in Puerto Rico. There’s even a Facebook and Twitter account called Adopta un Hoyo – Adopt a Pothole – to warn Puerto Ricans about their harrowing holes.

READ MORE: Trump's Tactless Puerto Rico Tweet Was Right. But Wrong. Here's What He Left Out

Meanwhile, the holes don’t get fixed. The local asphalt companies blame the Puerto Rican government’s fecklessness; the government accuses the asphalt firms of being an overpriced oligopoly.

They’re both right – and that’s a reflection of the broader institutional crisis plaguing the bankrupt U.S. territory. Puerto Rican infrastructure was an embarrassing mess before Hurricane Maria demolished the island last month. Especially the power grid, which Maria destroyed, leaving 80 percent of the island still without power.

In fact, Puerto Rico’s power utility, PREPA, is one of the western hemisphere’s worst. So the controversy surrounding it this week is not all that surprising – as it tries to explain why it handed a small, two-year-old Montana company, Whitefish Energy, a major $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s decimated grid.

Puerto Rico's recovery mess - and the suspect Whitefish deal - evoke memories of other natural catastrophes in this hemisphere: the dysfunctional disaster dance between Washington and local governments at ground zero.

Energy experts say PREPA could have turned to any number of U.S. utilities, including Florida Power & Light, for cheaper and more reliable help. The fact that it opted to sign a fat, no-bid deal with such an obscure, faraway firm boasting just two full-time employees has everyone from Congress to Puerto Rico’s darkened barrios shaking their heads.

I’m shaking my own, especially after seeing little evidence last week – a month after Maria – that any repair of Puerto Rico’s power grid has really begun. On the roadsides I saw more motorists replacing blown tires than I did trucks replacing fallen utility poles. Near the southeast city of Guayama, I watched dozens of drivers pull over to gawk at the long overdue sight of a military chopper delivering workers to fix a mountainside power-line tower.

PREPA and Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló argue Whitefish was the best choice – and they brush aside concerns that the company is based in the Montana hometown of President Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke.

Whitefish and Zinke insist that’s just a coincidence. But because Rosselló is so desperate for Trump Administration aid – that’ll happen when your government is $70 billion in debt and a Category 4 storm just raked your entire island – the Whitefish power deal has raised red flags.

All of this evokes memories of recent natural catastrophes in this hemisphere – and the dysfunctional disaster dance we so often see between Washington and the local governments at ground zero.

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Hurricane Katrina in 2005 stands out. Then President George W. Bush’s “you’re-doin’-a-heckuva-job-Brownie” cluelessness paired with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s incompetence and corruption. (Nagin is sitting in a federal prison today.)

So does the epic Haiti earthquake of 2010. The Obama Administration all but handing the $10 billion recovery effort to Bill and Hillary Clinton and their foundation – which Haitians say mostly botched the job – while then Haitian President René Préval went AWOL.

A satirical illustration of Puerto Rico's notorious potholes from the Facebook and Twitter group Adopta un Hoyo (Adopt a Pothole).
Credit Adopta un Hoyo / Twitter

Will Puerto Rico end as badly?

Things certainly look scary on Trump’s end. Thus far he’s treated Puerto Rico’s emergency – and Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens – with cavalier, paper towel-tossing indifference if not hostility.

Which means the 38-year-old Rosselló has to step up and be the hero in this Caribbean drama. He at least appears more honest and intelligent than the predecessors who bankrupted Puerto Rico. And today he told his Inspector General to look at PREPA's questionable Whitefish contract.

But he’ll need to do more to build confidence in this recovery effort.

Along the way he might also send out crews to fill the damn potholes.