Fact Check of the Day: Trump Claims ‘We Did a Fantastic Job in Puerto Rico’


Fact Check of the Day

President Trump asserted that Puerto Rico’s power utility was “dead” and that electricity was “gone” even before Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017. The utility was in disrepair but still operational, and the island was not in the dark.

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Jazmín Méndez was among the last residential customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to have service restored after Hurricane Maria.CreditCreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times
Linda Qiu

what was said

“I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico. We’re still helping Puerto Rico. The governor is an excellent guy and he’s very happy with the job we’ve done. We have put billions and billions of dollars into Puerto Rico.

And it was a very tough one. Don’t forget, their electric plant was dead before the hurricane. If you look back on your records, you’ll see that plant was dead, it was shut, it was bankrupt, it was out of business. They owed tremendous amounts of money. They had it closed up. And then when the hurricane came, people said, ‘What do are we going to do about electricity?’ That wasn’t really the hurricane. That was gone before the hurricane.”

— President Trump, in remarks on Wednesday at the White House

the facts

This is exaggerated.

Mr. Trump is right that Puerto Rico’s electric utility had declared bankruptcy and that the power grid was plagued with issues before Hurricane Maria ravaged the island last September. But it is not accurate to suggest that people had no electricity before the hurricane.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or Prepa, was widely criticized in September 2016, when a fire knocked a power plant offline and left 1.5 million people without electricity for three days.

After the cutoff, a Puerto Rico Energy Commission report noted that Prepa had failed to safely and reliably supply electricity. It concluded that customers experienced interruption rates four to five times higher than other American utilities and that its “transmission and distribution systems are falling apart quite literally.”

On top of the litany of management and infrastructure issues outlined in the report, Prepa has also been in financial distress for years and, straddled with $9 billion of bond debt, effectively filed for bankruptcy in July 2017.

So it is clear that Puerto Rico’s power utility was in terrible shape before the hurricane. Residents, however, still had electricity, as evidenced by satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taken both before and after the hurricane hit the island.

Maria “knocked down 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s utility poles and all transmission lines, resulting in the loss of power to essentially all of the island’s 3.4 million residents,” according to an April report by the National Hurricane Center. Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s residents were still without power by the end of 2017.

Power was restored to most of the island this month, and the grid is now back to a similar condition to what it was before the hurricane struck.

Whether the Trump administration has done a “fantastic job in Puerto Rico” is a matter of opinion. But it is worth noting that when Mr. Trump first visited the island in October, he compared the death toll, which then stood at 16 people, with those of previous hurricanes.

“Sixteen versus literally thousands of people,” he said. “Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rico now estimates that 2,975 people died from the hurricane and the aftermath, compared with 1,000 to 1,800 people killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Source: Puerto Rico Energy Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The New York Times

Linda Qiu is a fact-check reporter, based in Washington. She came to the Times in 2017 from the fact-checking service PolitiFact. @ylindaqiu



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