Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Hurricane Maria ruins agriculture in Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans lined up for drinking water outside a police station in Juncos.
(New York Times photo by Victor Blue)
After surveying his ruined plantain farm, farmer Jose Rivera summed up his fears succinctly: "There will be no food in Puerto Rico," he predicted. "There is no more agriculture in Puerto Rico. And there won't be any for a year or longer."

When Hurricane Maria blasted through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, it left "a rich agricultural region looking like the result of a postapocalyptic drought," Frances Robles and Luis Ferre-Sadruni report for The New York Times. In just hours, the storm "wiped out about 80 percent of the crop value in Puerto Rico -- making it one of the costliest storms to hit the island's agriculture industry." That's according to Carlos Flores Ortega, Puerto Rico's agriculture secretary. The department's preliminary figures say that's about $780 million in lost yields.

Though Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of its food, its economy was once based primarily on agriculture, the Times reports. In recent years, partially because of the island's economic recession, farming has become more popular. But with those crops wiped out, Puerto Ricans will be forced to import even more food, and possibly pay higher prices for it. To complicate matters, nearby islands that export food to Puerto Rico were also hit hard by Maria.

Dairy farmers are in dire straits too, since they don't have the electricity to run milking or refrigeration machinery, or the gas to deliver products to stores (which don't have refrigeration either). "Since Wednesday, I have thrown out 4,000 liters of milk a day," dairy farmer Efrain Robles Menendez said, "Come back later and watch me pour it all down the drain."

Local officials hope there's a silver lining in the destruction: federal aid will help rebuild antiquated infrastructure with modern technology, and that could help the agriculture industry come back better than ever, the Times reports. Some farms could be operational within a year, but others will take longer. In the meantime, Puerto Ricans--especially in rural areas--are stranded with little food, money, medical equipment, gas or water.

Food, water and diesel fuel have been dispatched, and FEMA teams are canvassing the island to assess its needs, but getting aid to the island is difficult because it must come from sea or air. Only the Port of San Juan has been cleared for operation, and airports are damaged. Gov. Ricardo Rossello said "We still need some more help. This is clearly a critical disaster in Puerto Rico," Samantha Schmidt and Joel Achenbach report for The Washington Post.

President Trump announced today that he will travel to Puerto Rico next Tuesday to survey the hurricane damage. "The president told reporters at the White House that damage on the ground prevents any earlier travel to the island, which he said has been 'literally destroyed.' Trump expressed confidence that 'they’ll be back' and said the people of Puerto Rico 'are important to all of us,'" Jordan Fabian reports for The Hill.

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