Puerto Rico looks very different outside of its cities. Populated by rural, often far-flung communities, this is a place of steep hills, lush, almost indecent greens, and a Caribbean view that can stretch for miles even deep inland.
In this place, then, it's hard to imagine summoning up an army of lawyers. That's still exactly what the residents need.
According to Mariely Rivera Hernández, executive director for the nonprofit organization Unidos Por Puerto Rico, more than half the residents of rural communities don't actually own the land they built their homes on. During the mass migrations triggered by Puerto Rico's conversion from agriculture to a manufacturing economy, many families simply uprooted themselves and settled wherever they could find new work. Who owned the earth a new house stood on rarely came up… at least not until Hurricanes Irma and Maria and the resulting flood of financial claims.
Almost eight months after the hurricanes, residents are still filing with insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These claims have been complicated by questions of title, with agents often insisting that they can't hand out money to someone who is (legally) a squatter.
For people still living in the house their parents built, Hernandez said, it comes as a surprise when a government official calls them a squatter; even moreso when they discover that this means they can't rebuild.
Resolving this issue is one of the many obscure needs hidden among Puerto Rico's larger story of power outages and the incoming 2018 hurricane season. As reconstruction has progressed, the narrative has focused heavily on direct financial aid and physical development. These are important issues to be sure. Residents around the island still tie blue tarpaulin over holes where roofs once were and power outages continue to plague the struggling electrical grid.
But the needs of Puerto Rico's residents, American citizens all, are more complex than that. As Hernandez pointed out, they need legal help. They need insurance adjusters to arrive in numbers that rival the linemen sent down here by mainland power companies; they need people in short-sleeved shirts and neckties who can finally fill out claims and get families their money.
They also need smart debt relief.
Since Hurricanes Maria and Irma made landfall, Puerto Rico has received billions of dollars in government aid. The money spent has been small compared to the scope of need. Houston alone received more than $7.9 billion to recover from Hurricane Harvey, while Puerto Rico's needs cover far more, and far more difficult, terrain. Making matters worse, the federal government has taken the unusual step of making much of this aid conditional. Billions of dollars will flow in the form of loans, not grants. Per reporting by NPR in March:
For months, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello has been struggling to get the U.S. Treasury to release $4.7 billion in disaster recovery loans that the U.S. Congress approved in October, weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated the island commonwealth. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had delayed releasing the loans because of disagreement over the terms of repayment.
The agreement ended six months of tense negotiations during which Puerto Rico's governor loudly criticized Mnuchin for what he characterized as overly harsh conditions that the U.S. Treasury sought to impose before disbursing the loans.
According to a letter Rossello wrote to Congress last month, the Treasury was demanding that repayment of those loans be given the highest priority, even over the funding of essential services on the island. The governor said the Treasury also wanted to rule out the possibility of future loan forgiveness. Disaster recovery loans are often forgiven.
Puerto Rico struggled with debt long before last year's hurricanes. Burdened by a struggling economy, expensive shipping lanes and tens of billions in unfunded pensions, the island had more than $100 billion in liabilities in mid-2017. The storms pushed what had been a teetering economy over the edge, creating a conflict between the island's Wall Street bond holders and economists who argue that Puerto Rico simply cannot rebuild and pay off its debts at the same time.
While Puerto Rico's debtors argue that they bought its bonds in good faith, there's also little chance that the island can revive its economy and attract back the young people who have fled in record numbers under an age of austerity. If Puerto Rico has to continue cutting budgets for schools, social welfare and 21st Century infrastructure, people will continue to seek their fortunes elsewhere. There will be little, if anything, that anyone can do to stop the island from slipping into the same tourist dependent economic doldrums that plague so many other Caribbean islands.
Yet as the Detroit's extraordinary revival attests, America can do better than that for its people. Puerto Rico needs more hammers and nails, there's no denying that. Miles of electric lines still need to be hung and many homes are still waiting to be rebuilt. That's not all, though. As much as it needs workers in muddy boots, today the island also needs an army of clipboards. It needs lawyers to help file adverse possession claims and insurance adjusters to process long-lingering paperwork.
It needs health insurance executives and Medicaid outreach, so that no one has to run dialysis machines with gas-powered generators (as this reporter saw) or rely on crowdfunding to pay for urgently needed care. It needs economists and bankers to figure out how Puerto Rico can emerge from its financial catastrophe without using relief money to enrich investors and without destroying the island's future credit.
There's a lot of work still to be done here. It's time for the white collar wonks to start doing their part.