Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, is a commonwealth located off the southeast corner of the United States in the Caribbean.

Geography – Puerto Rico has a diverse geography. Lowlands and beaches cover the northern and southern coasts. The Cordillera Central mountain range cuts through the center of the mainland. The urban areas are concentrated along the coasts, while the center of the island is more rural.

Population – As of 2018, the population of Puerto Rico decreased to 3.2 million people due to 132,000 people leaving after Hurricanes Maria and Irma struck the island in 2017 [1]. The capital city, San Juan, is the most populated city, with approximately 321,000 residents [2].

Politics – Puerto Rico has a government with elected representatives and three branches: legislative, executive, and judiciary. Power is separated by a system of checks and balances. Despite having its own constitution, Puerto Rico is subject to the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the U.S. and can have its policies overridden by the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. Puerto Rico is divided into seventy-eight municipalities, each headed by a mayor and governed by a municipal legislature. The legislature oversees the mayor’s operations, holds public meetings, and enacts resolutions and ordinances in the municipality. The mayor and the legislature are both elected by the citizens of the municipality.

Hurricanes – Over time, hurricanes have increased in strength and frequency due to sea level rise and temperature changes. Hurricanes are generally worse in areas near the equator due to hot and humid air. Thus, Puerto Rico, which is located within this region, is susceptible to stronger hurricanes.

Figure 1: A map of Puerto Rico showing the population density of each municipality, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. [3]
Figure 2: A satellite image of Puerto Rico showing the topography of the island. [3]
Figure 3: A map of Puerto Rico showing major cities, roads, and rivers. [4]

Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. This Category 4 hurricane was the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in over eighty years. Wind speeds of up to 155 mph caused nearly $100 billion in damage. Roads, homes, bridges, and vegetation were completely destroyed. This lack of vegetation, combined with excessive rain, triggered a series of landslides that caused more damage to the land and existing structures. Residents experienced an island-wide power outage, where 100% of people lost power. They also experienced a communications blackout, where nearly every cell tower, radio station, and television station was out of order. Nearly one year after the storm, the death toll was reported to be 2,975, which is more than Hurricanes Katrina, Irma, and Harvey combined.

Figure 4: A map depicting the path of Hurricane Maria across Puerto Rico.
Figure 5: Damages are seen in a supermarket after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico, Sept. 20, 2017.
Figure 6: Highway 10, a major north-south connection through Puerto Rico is completely washed out, leaving people cut off, Sept. 23, 2017.
Figure 7: A car submerged in flood waters is seen close to the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico, Sept. 23, 2017.

Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma swept by Puerto Rico on September 6, 2017, two weeks before Hurricane Maria. It was a Category 5 storm with 185 mph winds, one of the strongest to ever pass the island. Despite never directly hitting the island, Hurricane Irma left 1 million people in Puerto Rico without power and did nearly $50 billion worth of damage. Even though Maria was rated weaker than Irma, it caused further major devastation to the island, which was in a weakened state after Irma.