It’s been more than a month since Hurricane Maria left much of Puerto Rico without electricity and clean drinking water, and with recovery efforts either going slowly or subject to scandal, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is reportedly developing a rather dramatic plan to help residents still in need of shelter—relocation.
Bloomberg reports that officials from HUD, the Trump administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) met on Friday to discuss ways to temporarily relocate tens of thousands of displaced Puerto Ricans—possibly via commercial cruise liners—to the U.S. mainland.
The plan comes in response to Puerto Rico’s request for Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA), a federal subsidy administered by FEMA to residents of disaster areas. TSA typically comes in the form of a hotel stay in an area outside the disaster, but the devastation in Puerto Rico has left many of the island’s hotels uninhabitable.
Florida is the most likely destination for Puerto Rican refugees, as more than 73,000 Puerto Ricans have already evacuated to the state, according to governor Rick Scott. According to Bloomberg, HUD has reached out to executives in the housing agency in addition to investment managers with ties to Puerto Rico to help develop potential solutions.
The report says the plan is in very early stages and would have considerable logistic challenges to overcome before implementation, but consideration of the relatively drastic measure underscores how dire the situation in Puerto Rico remains.
According to research firm Rhodium Group, roughly 75 percent of Puerto Rico remains without electricity. The effort to rebuild the island’s power grid may be delayed further because the Trump administration initially awarded the federal contract to do so to Whitefish, a company with only two full-time employees but with connections to both Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and a Trump donor. The contract was subsequently cancelled over the weekend.
The lack of electricity compounds a number of other problems in Puerto Rico, most notably the drinking water supply. Reports that drinking water had been restored to more than 70 percent of the island were called into question by a Vox investigation that found only 15 of the island’s 167 water treatment and distribution plants had power, and only 16 of 2,186 water pumping stations had power.
Many Puerto Ricans have been seen pulling water from sites where toxic waste and raw sewage were prevalent. Because much of the island lacks power, it’s near-impossible to boil water for the purposes of purification.
As of Friday, the official death count for the storm stands at 51, but Buzzfeed reported that at least 911 deaths attributed to “natural causes” were likely a result of the storm.
There’s also widespread hunger on the island. FEMA is only providing 200,000 meals per day to meet the needs of more than 2 million people, mostly military ready-to-eat meals, but there have also been reports that the food available to Puerto Ricans is essentially junk food—Cheez-Its, jerky, Skittles, chocolate pudding, Vienna sausages.
The simple truth is that it’s hard to know exactly what’s happening on the ground because of a lack of immediate information. That alone might be enough to consider a drastic measure like evacuation.