ON A BALMY evening Cocina Abierta, a restaurant in Condado, a neighbourhood on the oceanfront in Puerto Rico’s capital, is fully booked, as it has been most evenings since it reopened a few days after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September 2017. Tourists mingle with well-heeled locals over tuna tatake and octopus tentacles, sipping wine and exchanging tales of sailing expeditions.
Get away from the bright lights and the picture is very different. Modest single-storey houses remain badly damaged, with mould on the walls and leaky roofs. Many of them are boarded up. About 40% of those over 65 live below the poverty line and the median household income is $19,000 a year. Still, after more than a year that brought hardship for many of this Caribbean island’s 3.4m residents, Puerto Rico is getting back on its feet.
A slew of statistics confirm that for the first time since Maria killed almost 3,000 Puerto Ricans, cut off the entire island’s electricity and cell-phone communication, damaged more than half a million houses and nearly all hospitals, made roads impassable and blocked ports—there is actually some good news.
At the end of October the oversight board raised its forecast for economic growth. It filed a plan in court to restructure roughly $17.5bn in bonds issued by the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation. A federal judge has approved the board’s restructuring of the island’s Government Development Bank, which lends to the central and local governments.
In the first seven months of this year companies announced investments of $360m and the creation of more than 6,700 jobs, compared with $48m and 1,200 jobs in all of 2017. In October the official unemployment rate hit 8.3%, the lowest in more than 70 years. Puerto Rico’s critical infrastructure—electricity, water, telecommunications, schools and hospitals—is functioning again, according to the Centre for a New Economy, a think-tank. Brad Dean of Discover Puerto Rico, a marketing board, says almost 90% of hotels are open.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was widely criticised for its slow response to the hurricane. The agency has since given $4bn to Puerto Rican citizens, either directly to rebuild their homes or in the form of Small Business Administration loans, says Mike Byrne, who runs FEMA in Puerto Rico. At the peak of the hurricane 19,000 soldiers worked for FEMAon the island. “The real villain was 30 inches of rain and winds of 180mph,” says Mr Byrne. “Maria pushed our limits.”
With a more competitive economy, Puerto Rico might succeed in paying some of the $120bn it owes to bondholders and pensioners, but not all. Joseph Stiglitz, an economist, and his co-authors argue in a recent paper that Puerto Rico will still need to write off up to 70% of its debt.