In Puerto Rico, a sinkhole of rebuilding struggles

  • storm damage
- Reuters, BAYAMON (Puerto Rico)/NEW YORK

Nov 11, 2017-Along a stretch of highway in suburban Bayamon, Puerto Rico, construction workers tried desperately to make progress repairing a 100-foot-long sinkhole before the clouds rolled in.

Previous rains had suspended work, as workers watched earth fall back into the hole.

“It has not wanted to stop raining” since Hurricane Maria, said Carlos Rivera, a 26-year-old contract worker at the site last month.

Cars backed up for miles along Puerto Rico Highway 2 on either side of the colossal construction site, which swallowed four of five lanes. The 20-foot crater was among thousands of sites damaged by a storm that exposed an already fragile infrastructure in Puerto Rico, decimating water, power and roadways all at once.

Fixing just this one sinkhole required maneuvering a set of vexing logistical and financial hurdles that reveal why rebuilding this isolated island will take so much more time and work than in any storm-ravaged region of the mainland United States. The hole is only one of 3,500 reported incidents of hurricane damage to Puerto Rico-owned roadways, with repair costs estimated at $250 million.

A US territory, Puerto Rico was already in trouble when Maria hit on Sept. 20 as the strongest storm to strike the island in nine decades. Its economy had been in recession for a decade, pushing the island into bankruptcy to restructure about $120 billion in bond and pension debt.

The task of rebuilding is made that much harder by the challenges and expense of bringing supplies and equipment to an island, which will depend heavily on US aid and likely struggle to finance its expected share of the rebuilding. The storm cut all power and cell service, felled trees, destroyed 230,000 homes and damaged another 400,000.

One of the casualties was this stretch of Highway 2, the vital 143-mile artery between San Juan and Ponce. Running west from San Juan before looping south, the road transports thousands of people a day between the San Juan suburbs and the island’s bustling capital.

Hurricane Maria’s rains flooded the pipes under Highway 2 until one burst. Water gushed out of the old pipe deep below the roadway, scouring out a hole into which the ground eventually collapsed.

Officials could not ignore the sinkhole, which squeezed eastbound traffic into a single westbound lane and detoured westbound traffic. Tempers began to fray as residents endured a one-mile drive for nearly an hour.

The problem fell to Puerto Rico Transportation and Public Works Secretary Carlos Contreras Aponte. His department oversees the island’s Highway and Transportation Authority (PRHTA), which manages a third of Puerto Rico’s 9,300 miles of roadway. The most pressing problem facing Contreras was logistics: how to rebuild a road with no power, limited trucks, no electrical light, and no cell phones. As of this week, less than half the island’s power had been restored, according to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

Puerto Rico’s antiquated electric grid was decimated by the storm and now needs a 

complete rebuild.

Electricity is required to run the machinery used for extracting rock and other raw materials to produce asphalt. Since the storm, contractors have had to bring in diesel-powered generators to power the machinery, a cumbersome and expensive task, Contreras said.

“That’s something that’s happening in every industry here,” creating a shortage of generators, Contreras said.

Another scarce commodity: trucks. With much of the population cut off from power and communication, the island was forced to divert hundreds of trucks and drivers to help bring supplies to needy citizens. That left few vehicles behind to transport the equipment and materials needed to fix infrastructure, including Highway 2’s sinkhole.

“The truck drivers, many have been hired by other companies,” the secretary said. Among those competing for trucks: Puerto Rico’s own water and sewer authority, known as PRASA.

PRASA president Eli Diaz-Atienza told Reuters in an interview in October that his agency had just 125 trucks to service the island’s 3.4 million residents. 

Published: 11-11-2017 08:24

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