Puerto Rico hurricane
Sergeants in Puerto Rico's National Guard support the clearing of heavy debris after tropical storm Irene's passing through Puerto Rico in August 2011. Credit: Sgt. Joseph Rivera/Flickr

I continue to see apocalyptic estimates that it will take about four months for electric power to be restored on the island of Puerto Rico. There must be some way that we can improve on that number. We definitely should marshal every expert and every resource we have to do better than that. In the meantime, however, it will inevitably cause at least a short-term exodus of people to the mainland. Anyone with the resources or family connections to move is going to move. Would you stay somewhere without power for months if you had any alternative? What happens to the economy in a situation like that? How do you make a living and pay the rent or the mortgage?

Our first concern should be humanitarian. Generators and the fuel to power them should be near the top of the list. Health care facilities will need them, but also businesses that might thereby manage to operate, stay afloat, and keep people employed. Vulnerable people who need electricity to power life-saving medical equipment may have to be evacuated, and they’ll need some kind of housing. This is an unimaginable catastrophe.

Inevitably, many of the people who come to the mainland over the next few months will not make it back anytime soon, if ever. The second they arrive somewhere in the fifty states, they’ll be eligible to vote. In some places, particularly Florida, their numbers may be large enough to change political outcomes. If they align overwhelmingly with one political party, this will be much more likely. For this reason, both parties have an interest in avoiding a situation where they are blamed for an inadequate response. If the Republicans discover that they’re not getting much support from the refugees, they’ll be all the more incentivized to repair Puerto Rico quickly so that a reverse migration takes place.

These dynamics could be helpful in terms of Puerto Rico getting the attention and resources that it needs. There’s still a longer-term risk though that the imposition of harsh conditions for repayment of loans and other efforts to Detroit-ify the island will cause a political backlash. This process was already in motion before the hurricanes hit, but it will probably go into overdrive now.

It’s also not clear to me that law and order can stand up for months when there is no power and people’s basic needs can’t be met. What this might do to the existing political order in Puerto Rico and how it might erode sympathy on the mainland are hard to predict. I can’t even predict whether this will add or subtract from the sentiment for full statehood. I imagine here in the fifty states, Puerto Rico will look more unattractive than ever, but how will things be perceived there? Will they conclude that full recovery is impossible without a closer tie to the union or will all the loss of sovereignty associated with their acceptance of aid lead them to seek full independence with new furor?

Will scarcity, insecurity and nationalism cause a rightward shift in the electorate, or will the island shift sharply left as they seek more assistance on less onerous terms?

With so many people in immediate desperate need, it’s unseemly to focus too much on politics, but people’s perceptions of the politics will color how this emergency is handled in Washington. I wish I understood the politics of this better than I do, but unfortunately it looks like I will have plenty of time to learn.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com