I’d like to follow up last week’s commentary with an aspect of the damage done by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that should be a warning to all Americans.
Virtually all experts will tell you that the American electrical grid is vulnerable.
Without electricity virtually nothing works. Electricity is essential to all our meters and gauges and thermostats and doorbells – virtually everything that we work with, is electrical.
I tried to compose this commentary while taking a walk in my neighborhood but suddenly I noticed that the screen was stuck on a particular word. And then I got a message that my phone had disconnected from WiFi. Wi-Fi and everything else is electrical. All of our Communications are based on the electrical system. Cell phones, telephones, radio, television, cable – everything is based on electricity. Old fashioned wired telephones, known as landlines, were the rare system built with a separate power source and that’s one of the reasons why we kept a landline in our house along with our cell phones. We wanted to be able to communicate even when the grid went down.
I’ve been in several power outages of varying lengths. When New York City had an outage of several days we got places on foot. New York City is designed for foot traffic with sidewalks and lots of little business areas in reach for most of us. But the elevator didn’t work in my elderly cousin’s apartment building and she was trapped on the 5th floor. She couldn’t get downstairs and was dependent on the kindness of neighbors to bring her food. Of course, in a power outage our refrigerators don’t work. Many of our kitchen stoves won’t work even if they run on gas because they depend on electrical starters. Our thermostats won’t work and the heat won’t come on even if it’s a gas, oil or other non-electrical system because they depend on an electrical spark. Almost all factories, machinery, offices, shipping and stores depend on electricity for necessary functions. Everything crashes without electricity. Hospitals don’t function without electricity so most have invested in backup generators but they are very expensive to run for any length of time.
It turns out that the gas pipeline system is dependent on electrical supplies for many of its functions. Without electricity, the modern world we live in is at a standstill as Puerto Rico has been for months.
But the grid is vulnerable. It can and does go down for accidental, malicious and natural reasons. To hand China or Russia the power to bring the good old U.S.A. to its knees, just don’t harden the grid. The internet was originally created by the Defense Department – that’s right, the federal government Department of Defense – because it had identified vulnerabilities in the land-based private telephone system. Patriots on both sides of the aisle need to see that the electrical and internet grids are hardened, fast.
— This commentary was originally scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 11, 2018. The broadcast by NPR and WAMC of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, however, pushed back the originally scheduled broadcast. We plan to broadcast it at a later date but I am posting it now nonetheless.
I’m glad Gov. Cuomo has been talking about what happened to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. It should never have dropped out of public discussion both for the sake of the residents of Puerto Rico and for the rest of us.
Katrina undid George Bush when many in New Orleans and the surrounding area got no help. The public was disgusted when Bush praised the head of FEMA for “doing a heck of a job” four days after the hurricane struck. After Hurricane Maria hit, the whole island of Puerto Rico was without power. Half were still powerless half a year later, jerry-rigging connections or using generators for life-saving equipment. At least 11,000 US citizens were still powerless in June, with power authorities still figuring out who was without. But it didn’t bother Trump. The storm hit Puerto Rico on September 20. In early October, Trump announced he’d already done enough.
Dealing with weather disasters takes advance planning. Reacting after the damage is done is too late for many of the injured and displaced. A member of the Albany Law Board who worked on disaster planning for the Red Cross described the process to me. One has to anticipate needs, delivery routes, and get things to staging areas from which they can be delivered before the storm hits, together with the vehicles needed to bring supplies to the affected people. That’s complex and difficult but it can be done because we have considerable advance warning of where major weather events will strike. Not rocket science, it’s a well-worn path of jobs that need to be done.
Puerto Rico is not unmapped far away frontier territory. It’s an island, which should have suggested advance planning for sea-worthy ships and protected areas on the island. Its miles of unpaved mountain roads should have suggested the need for helicopters, like those New York supplied when the Feds didn’t. FEMA was busy with other disasters but that too was predictable. It didn’t raise the alarm and ask for help until well after the storm passed by. Only then was the U.S. Army, itself skilled in disaster relief abroad, permitted to go into Puerto Rico.
Some politicians like to charge that the damage was Puerto Rico’s own fault, the result of graft, corruption and mismanagement. That’s a misdirected ascription of collective guilt. Most Puerto Ricans are related to those ills only as victims. And the beneficiaries were the same people and institutions that we like to hold harmless, the wealthiest people and corporations. The electrical grid was unable to resist storm damage because the corporate leadership left it that way. But we prefer to blame an island and an ethnic or racial group. It would be such bad form to notice who actually caused and who was victimized by the problems in Puerto Rico.
Worse, it hasn’t been allowed to use federal money to fix anything in the cleanup, only to rebuild not one jot better than before, ready to collapse again in the next storm.
All this reflects incompetence and lack of concern about the welfare of Americans. We are all diminished by humanitarian disasters. And disasters are contagious. As John Donne so eloquently put it, “never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee,” for all of us.
My classmate, Judge José Cabranes, wrote in the Washington Post that Puerto Ricans would be leaving the island and coming to the mainland. They have, and as citizens, they may, and should, vote where they settle.
— This commentary was originally scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 4, 2018. The broadcast by NPR and WAMC of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, however, preempted broadcast on the 4th. We plan to broadcast it at a later date but I am posting it now nonetheless.