[Column] Hurricanes and Puerto Rico
On August 8, 1899, the 100-mph winds of San Ciriaco took 3,369 lives.
Ninety years later, although the island’s population had quadrupled, Hugo’s 125-mph winds took 2 lives.
Hurricane Irma took three.
The reason is obvious. Better warning and preparation. But far more important, economic development.
Now, in the U.S. the back-to-back fury and destruction of Harvey and Irma has reignited the always volatile issue of climate change. The Trump administration is resisting media pressure to link the two. But there is no doubt in Republican Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado: “If this is not climate change, I don’t know what it is.”
But in fact no one knows. Climate change is an enormously complex issue and while some experts say they can’t link it to the frequency of the hurricanes, they say they can to the intensity.
Here in Puerto Rico a link can be made between the effect of hurricanes and the issue of climate change.
First, here as everywhere else, climate change is associated with the environmental movement that warns us that the planet is warming due, in part, to economic development that depends on burning fossil fuels for energy. If we continue, we are told, we are headed to a doomsday catastrophe.
So the more developed and wealthier the nations, the stronger their environmental movement.
Here in Puerto Rico we have a strong movement for several reasons. One, because after long centuries of economic stagnation, beginning in the late ’40s we had a period of rapid industrialization and economic development.
But even more important, because this is a small, green island, and while Puerto Ricans fight about anything, every Puerto Rican – here or elsewhere – agrees that it is an island of spectacular beauty – a beauty that every Puerto Rican wants to preserve.
So to be Puerto Rican is to be an environmentalist.
Now, the environmental movement began to gain strength in the ’60s when it stopped a copper mining project, in the ’70s it stopped the Superport project and has been growing ever since, opposing and stopping tourism development, power plants and other projects.
Here, as elsewhere, the environmentalists insist they are not against economic development, they are against projects that clearly damage the environment and endanger public health.
But through the years, I have noticed a pattern.
A developer and the government announce a new project: so much will be invested, so many jobs created, this and that positive impact on the economy.
Soon a “community organization” will emerge to oppose the project alleging it will damage their community, their health, their very lives.
This, of course, is democracy: People have every right to oppose what the government wants and certainly what private developers want. In some cases there is an environmentalist militant, at times also a pro-independence militant, behind its organization. But it is natural that the fears of these people are real, authentic.
Soon the “community organization” will get media coverage; this is a great David versus Goliath story: men and women from poor barrios confronting the power of big government and giant corporations.
And as publicity grows, public opinion rallies behind the protestors, politicians begin to line up behind them, the project finds itself in growing peril.
The developers and the government know that they must address these fears, they must justify the project to the community as much as to the many local and federal agencies that protect the environment and public health. Projects need scores of permits: They need to prove that they will abide by the many laws and regulations.
Armed with the many permits from these agencies, the developers are confident that they will prove to the community leaders, to the media, to public opinion that it is simply not true that they will destroy the beautiful beach, poison the air and the water, or cause people to die of cancer and other diseases.
Wrong. They discover that nothing persuades, much less stops the escalating protest: no local or federal EPA certifications, no Secretary of Health visiting the community to reassure them.
The developer may ask the protesters: Tell us what you want us to do, what modifications will allay your fears. But what the protesters want are not modifications, not to save the project, they want to kill it.
I’ve come to the conclusion that if the environmental movement in Puerto Rico is focused enough on a project, and doesn’t lose interest, it will kill it.
And that of all the reasons the Puerto Rican economic growth stalled and stopped, creating the crisis we are in, the growth and success of the environmental movement in killing important projects is a big factor.
One can even ask, I believe, if we had in the ’50s and ’60s the environmental movement we have today, would there have been economic development?
And this brings us back to the hurricanes.
Of course, it’s the fury of the winds, the flooding and mudslides that kill people. But in the final analysis, it’s the poverty. We know that the same hurricane that kills few in Puerto Rico and Florida kills many in Haiti.
The good New York Times columnist Bret Stephens made the same point in a recent column. From 1940 to 2016, hurricanes have killed an average of 43 a year in the U.S. Contrast this to the 11,000-19,000 killed in Honduras and Nicaragua in 1998 or the 140,000 killed in Bangladesh in 1991.
It’s development that saves lives in a hurricane and it’s development that will save the planet.
And it’s poverty that will doom it.
–A.W. Maldonado was a reporter and columnist for the San Juan Star, executive editor of El Mundo, and publisher and editor of El Reportero.