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Puerto Rico - Dealing with the aftermath of hurricane season

A damaged sidewalk junction box
A damaged sidewalk junction box
A huge metal advertising post which flattened a house
A huge metal advertising post which flattened a house
All the palm trees in Condado have been destroyed
All the palm trees in Condado have been destroyed
Another hazardous walk along the pavement
All the palm trees in Condado have been destroyed
A patriotic mailbox
A patriotic mailbox
A torn flag with a defiant message
A torn flag with a defiant message
Baseball is big in Puerto Rico
Baseball is big in Puerto Rico
Cartier informing customers of their temporary closure
Cartier informing customers of their temporary closure
Clearing the main roads - one of the first tasks to be completed after Maria
Clearing the main roads - one of the first tasks to be completed after Maria
Destroyed tower block in Condonado
Destroyed tower block in Condonado
Diggers are a ubiquitous sight
Diggers are a ubiquitous sight
Emergency rations supplied in my hotel room
Emergency rations supplied in my hotel room
Empty refrigerators at Pueblo supermarket in Miramar
Empty refrigerators at Pueblo supermarket in Miramar
House with a collapsed roof
House with a collapsed roof
In darkness at San Juan's International Airport
In darkness at San Juan's International Airport
It's hard to keep goods fresh when the power is intermittent
It's hard to keep goods fresh when the power is intermittent
Kmart is now open but the sign damage is a reminder of Maria
Kmart is now open but the sign damage is a reminder of Maria
Landing at the airport
Landing at the airport
Local license plate
Local license plate
Many bus stops look like warzones
Many bus stops look like warzones
Many newly homeless people spend their days on the sidewalk now
Many newly homeless people spend their days on the sidewalk now
Ongoing repair work at my hotel
Ongoing repair work at my hotel
PR 1 Maria 0
PR 1 Maria 0
Pueblo supermarket
Pueblo supermarket
Roof damage
Roof damage
San Juan from the plane
San Juan from the plane
School bus
School bus
Six toed graffiti
Six toed graffiti
Small generator keeping a local shop open
Small generator keeping a local shop open
Some people are now living in tents on the beach
Some people are now living in tents on the beach
SuperMax supermarket
SuperMax supermarket
The closed Cartier store in Condonado
The closed Cartier store in Condonado
The Coliseo de Puerto Rico Jose Miguel Agrelot from the air
The Coliseo de Puerto Rico Jose Miguel Agrelot from the air
The damaged Sears sign at Plaza Las Americas
The damaged Sears sign at Plaza Las Americas
The Hard Rock Cafe won't be open for a while
The Hard Rock Cafe won't be open for a while
This branch of Burger King is open despite the damage
This branch of Burger King is open despite the damage
This once read OfficeMax
This Shell petrol station sign took a battering
This Shell petrol station sign took a battering
Toppled tree trunks - a very common sight in Condado
Toppled tree trunks - a very common sight in Condado
USA and Puerto Rico flags
USA and Puerto Rico flags

The Atlantic hurricane season is almost over and that will come as a relief to all those who live in the potential firing line of these deadly behemoths. 2017 has been a particularly destructive year on the hurricane front, with 17 named storms, making it one of the most active seasons on record. 

My colleague, Neil Ashman, previously posted a blog about the impact of two such devastating storms, Harvey and Irma, and how they can affect  location allowances. Only a day after this post, on the 20th September, Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island of Puerto Rico. There had only been one Category 5 hurricane (meaning wind speeds greater than 252 km/h) in the Atlantic since 2007 but the arrival of Maria saw the Caribbean being hit with its second in the space of only two weeks (Irma reached 295 km/h and Maria reached 280 km/h).

Another colleague of mine was due to be in Puerto Rico to collect Cost of Living data only a few days after Maria struck but, unsurprisingly, the airline and hotel cancelled the reservations. This is just as well because there would not have been much data to collect so soon after. Some seven weeks after Maria, though, I visited the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, to assess the situation and identify any changes in aspects affecting expatriates there.

My flight from Fort Lauderdale in Florida was almost empty as there are no tourists heading to the island for now and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect upon arrival. Prior to my visit there seemed to be limited information available on the internet, although the www.status.pr website indicated that most supermarkets were open in San Juan. The huge Plaza Las Americas shopping mall’s website indicated that their doors were open too so I was optimistic about being able to collect all of the Cost of Living data. But not everything went to plan.

My troubles began when I arrived at my hotel in the expensive Condado area close to the seafront. Condado is popular with expatriates and home to the majority of San Juan’s top-end hotels and they were all fully booked for the dates of my visit. The hotel I had a reservation for said they couldn’t honour it because the hotel was officially closed and only housing staff from FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some 15,000 emergency workers from the USA had been deployed to Puerto Rico and so they had booked out all of the hotels. Fortunately, after much waiting, the very helpful manager of the hotel managed to find me a room but could not guarantee electricity or running water for the whole stay. Yes, seven weeks after the hurricane the 5-star hotels were still running their power from generators. The hum of these machines was a constant presence throughout my few days there, as was the buzz of overhead helicopters transporting emergency workers and supplies around Puerto Rico.

When I first ventured out on to the streets of Condado there was a strange, almost post-apocalyptic, feel to the place. The myriad palm trees along Avenida Doctor Ashford had been stripped of all their foliage and most of the other tree species had been felled completely. Sawn off stumps were a ubiquitous sight. Bus stop shelters were destroyed, many being strangled by fallen overhead cables. The facades of many of the shops were boarded up, with signs informing customers of the temporary closures. 

There were dozens of people sleeping on the streets who clearly were made homeless by Maria as they had shopping trolleys full of their most treasured possessions. San Juan, and Condado in particular, is where the focus of much of the early rebuilding efforts have been placed so you can only wonder what the poorer, more isolated, areas of the island must be like.

In the immediate aftermath of Maria looting was widespread, particularly at supermarkets and petrol stations. The manager of my hotel said that he’d had to queue for 16 hours to fill his car up with gas. The looting has abated now though, and I didn’t get a sense of any other criminal activity going on. I didn’t see any queues at the petrol stations either, but I was surprised when I visited my first supermarket, Pueblo, in the Miramar area of San Juan. The shelves were stocked well with most products, but the refrigerator sections were 90% empty, with only a couple of cartons of milk and a slab of cheese. This was because the power supply was still so unreliable in that area that they were unable to keep any frozen or chilled goods reliably. 

Rather less fortunately, after visiting Pueblo I crossed the road to the huge mall (the largest in the Caribbean) and after a walk round the electrical goods section in Sears the lights went out! I later found out that there was a huge high-voltage transmission line failure and all power in the area disappeared. The mall had to be evacuated and I was told it wouldn’t be able to open until the next day. Sadly, for me, I was flying home the next morning and so my data collection had to be curtailed! 

Power did indeed return to the San Juan area the next day but many others on the island have not been so fortunate. When Maria struck, the whole of the island’s power grid was destroyed, leaving the population of 3.4 million people without electricity. As of the end of November over 40% of power is yet to be restored. A month after Maria less than ten percent of the island’s 5000 miles of roads were open and around 80% of the territory’s agriculture was lost. 95% of the mobile phone networks were knocked out and even now a quarter of the population still have no phone network connection. Most landline and cable television services are still not operating and are not expected to be back up fully until sometime next year. A FEMA official has said that the ‘response’ phase to Hurricane Maria is now over, with immediate needs having mostly been restored. The ‘recovery’ phase, however is likely to take years, hence ECA’s change in its Location Ratings score for San Juan. 

As a final sting in the tail for my trip, I spent a rather strange few hours waiting at San Juan’s international airport for my flight back to Florida. I checked in with no issues but after security the lights went out again. I only managed to find my departure gate by following the ghostly glow of mobile phone screens whose owners were all sat in total darkness. We were still waiting in the dark for our delayed flight three hours later when there was finally a flicker of light and we could all see again!

  FIND OUT MORE

ECA publishes Cost of Living data for more than 460 cities around the world. It is available from ECA in several forms: as part of subscription in a calculator which allows you to experiment with different types of index and review the outputs; in reports, providing background detail for specific indices; and as part of the Build-up Calculator for performing balance-sheet calculations. Cost of living data is also pre-populated in ECAEnterprise, our Assignment Management System, and in our Net-to-Net Calculator .

ECA's Location Ratings are delivered through ECA's Location Allowance Calculator which offers a transparent and detailed system for calculating location allowances for expatriates relocating to a new country. The system recognises that where an employee is coming from as well as going to can affect the level of adaptation required. Our Consultancy & Advisory service can calculate individual location allowances for you using your chosen home and host locations.

  Please contact us to speak to a member of our team directly.

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