Foreign Trade Zone #163
The Taíno people who lived on Boriquén – now called Puerto Rico – were decimated by the Spanish germs, guns and greed that swept across the Caribbean archipelago in the 1500s in search of gold. Before disappearing under banana farms and clothing factories, the Taíno culture left a legacy of food, musical instruments, the hammock and a number of useful words. One of them names a force of nature powerful enough to undo all the infrastructure that transformed Puerto Rico’s tropical rainforest into a factory island. That force is the huracán.
On September 5, 2017, the eye of Category 5 Hurricane Irma passed north of Puerto Rico where winds destroyed enough electrical wiring and transmission stations to leave 1 million citizens (out of 3.4 million) without power. Fifteen days later, on September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the island directly, blowing away nearly all the infrastructure that modern Puerto Ricans depend upon to deliver their daily bread, fresh water, phone calls, gasoline, medical care, education, entertainment and money. 30 days after Maria made landfall, the island still has little to no electrical power, and without electricity, Puerto Rico is essentially Out of Order.
As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico’s economy was designed to lure US companies with a 1947 tax-exempt agreement, the 1950 Foreign Trade Zone law amendment and the 1976 tax breaks granted by Congress. As a result of these financial incentives, U.S. banks, factories, restaurants, hotels, gas stations and department stores expanded to the island creating jobs for architects to build up business-friendly infrastructure like roads, water lines, factories, airports and most important of all, the power grid. But when the tax breaks expired in 2006, factories closed and workers fled to the U.S. mainland. Puerto Rico fell into a deep recession, and essentially disappeared from the business map. By 2014, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA could no longer pay its creditors, and couldn’t borrow more money to buy the imported oil it burned at its power plants. It also lacked the workforce to repair or upgrade the aging power grid. In July 2017, $9 billion in debt, PREPA defaulted on a $170 million interest payment to bondholders. Then in September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria turned the infrastructure of Puerto Rico from a Foreign Trade Zone into a disaster zone of debris.
Now that the repair effort has begun to pick up the broken splinters of Puerto Rican infrastructure, what sort of order will be inscribed on the island and by whom?
The demolished Puerto Rico infrastructure, like the vast networks of other urbanized regions studied by Keller Easterling cannot magically self-heal. It is animated by the life blood of money. Money is needed to pay for cheap labor to move cheap materials using cheap fuel to build roads, lay pipe, erect power lines and construct buildings. Where money flows are high, infrastructure is replicated and expanded like in Shenzen, a city in Guangdong Province, China. When money flows are low, infrastructure disintegrates, as is the case in Germany and the US.
Sensible proposals from Elon Musk to install solar panels on Puerto Rico, won’t budge without the money to pay for Telsa equipment and engineers. Of course, this hasn’t stopped energy firms like Tesla, Duracell, and Sonnen from sending battery and solar supplies to Puerto Rico, in hopes of gaining a toe-hold in what may become a lucrative rebuilding project.
Meanwhile Montana power contractor, Whitefish is reinstalling above ground pole and wire power lines and American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN) is using existing factories, roads, shipping and storage assets to connect Puerto Rico to the flow of food, water and medicines. This distributed life support system will be essential since Puerto Rican farmers recognize that there is no more agriculture in Puerto Rico. And there won’t be any for a year or longer.
Squeezed between hedge funds and hurricanes, the future of Puerto Rico is murky. Debt holders like DoubleLine Capital’s Jeffrey Gundlach and Mark Brodsky, could turn the island into another homogeneous and geographically disinterested space or “non-place” as described by anthropologist Marc Augè. Or architects, planners and activists could hack the formulae of infrastructural technology and create a human settlement that blends with the tropical environment instead of breaking it.