- - Thursday, July 26, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Puerto Rico is braced for Alberto, Beryl, Chris and Debby and other named storms, which will be churning out of the Atlantic any day now. The hurricane season is bearing down on us, and bracing is probably all the island can count on. The local government’s record of hurricane relief does not inspire confidence.

The island is still what one San Juan observer calls “a cesspool of corruption,” even after Congress mandated a financial control board to put public finances in order. Several officials, including the mayor of one devastated town, have been indicted for helping themselves to relief money, as if the relief was one enormous ATM machine.

One official was accused of stuffing his car full of goods meant for hurricane relief and speeding away to places unknown. Carlos Osorio, a special agent of the FBI, told Fox News in the wake of last summer’s storms that “the complaints we’re hearing is that the mayors of local municipalities, or people associated with their offices, are giving their political supporters special treatment, goods they’re not giving to other people who need them.” The U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico said anyone found to be “mishandling” relief supplies will be prosecuted and faces up to 20 years in prison.

There’s a bright spot, however small and fragile. The U.S. Department of Energy says the electric power grid, severely damaged last September by two devastating storms in a single month, is much improved.

“Much of Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure was damaged during hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017,” the Energy Department said, but the power plants on the island that rely on coal, oil and natural gas are operating at nearly 100 percent capacity. The hydroelectric plants are also largely back on line as well, but wind farms are still down. Just as the report was issued, several Puerto Ricans, including the mayor of Sabana Grande, were indicted on charges of fraud and misappropriation of the federal relief money. The culture of corruption that blocked the island’s initial recovery from last year’s hurricanes is flourishing.

PROMESA, the congressionally mandated financial oversight board, pushed into existence with the support of House Speaker Paul Ryan, was touted to get Puerto Rico’s dismal finances in order. But the only progress made so far is a deal with creditors to settle outstanding debts.

To complicate matters, Jennifer Gonzales-Colon, the Republican resident commissioner and congressional representative, proposes statehood as the cure. The island has clearly not mastered territory-hood, but, as in the District of Columbia, some dreamers imagine that statehood and the two U.S. senators and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives that would come with it, will make dreams come true.

Red flags abound. Walter Higgins, the chief executive of the island’s bankrupt power company, quit just four months after he was hired. He was charged with finding a way to privatize company operations and paid $450,000 a year to do it. His replacement, former GE executive Rafael Diaz-Granados, will be paid $750,000 a year. Mr. Higgins quit, he said, for “personal reasons” (no doubt to spend more time with his family), but his letter further mentioned difficulty in getting paid. The electric power company remains $9 billion in the red.

It’s a familiar miserable story for the people in Puerto Rico. Thousands have fled to the United States, many to Florida; as American citizens they are free to relocate where they choose.

The bureaucrats in charge, meanwhile, pass the time by sending memos to each other. The island swelters as the new hurricane season is at hand. The powers that be, such as they are, can’t work out a deal for final settlement with creditors. That lack of initiative is a good deal only for lawyers and “consultants” who have soaked up $154 million so far for “restructuring” and Title III processing. The island still needs to be cleaned up, and more hurricanes are coming.

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