Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced Sunday that he’ll cancel the $300 million no-bid contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings, the two-person Montana company that was supposed to help restore power to the island.
It’s the right move. While Puerto Rico will need the private sector to recover, the governor needs partners who have a history of doing this kind of work and the manpower to accomplish the task.
On a recent aid mission with former Gov. Luis Fortuño, I saw Puerto Rico’s enormous challenge. The devastation was shocking and even though every person I met was optimistic, they’re not getting enough help from their fellow Americans.
After Harvey and Irma hit the mainland, donations poured in. Non-government aid to victims of those storms now totals more than $620 million. In Puerto Rico, private donations are less than seven percent of that: $42 million.
A big part of the problem is that we fail basic civics. According to a Morning Consult survey, nearly half of Americans don’t know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. This fact affects our willingness to give. Individuals who knew the correct answer to that question were twice as likely to support federal government aid to Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans paid $3.6 billion in federal taxes last year, close to the amount paid by Wyoming residents. The island is home to more than 116,000 U.S. military veterans. More than 1,200 islanders have died defending our country.
We owe it to them to help, and cannot expect federal tax dollars alone to do the job.
Part of Puerto Rico’s challenge is that it doesn’t have the same private capital resources as Texas or Florida. Houston, for example, is home to 25 Fortune 500 companies for whom swift, significant aid was available. Puerto Rico has far fewer major corporations.
When I asked Gov. Rossello and Manuel Laboy Rivera, Secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, what the island needed, both said the private sector. Entrepreneurs must be involved for Puerto Rico to build back stronger.
Chef José Andrés is one business leader who’s made an impact. I toured his Chefs for Puerto Rico headquarters in San Juan – his team has served more than two million meals so far.
Private sector involvement is necessary, but it won’t be easy. Political commentators laughed when President Trump explained recovery is more difficult in Puerto Rico because it’s “sitting in the middle of an ocean.” While the president’s statement wasn’t eloquent, it was true.
When Harvey hit Houston, hundreds of Americans hitched their boats to the backs of trucks and drove south to help with search and rescue.
No matter how intrepid you are, you can’t take a speedboat from Miami to San Juan.
As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo explained, when Hurricane Sandy devastated his state, 6,000 utility crews from around the nation were there within “a matter of days.” The task will be much harder in Puerto Rico, he points out, because “you're going to have to put the bucket trucks on a barge.”
The 25,000 pounds of canned tuna bound for Puerto Rico that sat at a Florida airport for two weeks also illustrates this problem. It costs exponentially more to get supplies and equipment to the island — and that’s if you have a cargo plane or can find room in the backed-up shipping lanes.
Many individuals want to contribute, but the task is daunting even for well-capitalized companies and individuals.
But there are ways to help.
The U.S. Small Business Administration needs willing workers to help rebuild, and the island still needs basic supplies. Secretary of Housing Fernando Gil Enseñat told me he needs tarps to replace roofs and to shelter the homeless. My team delivered aid to the Casa Ronald McDonald and the San Jorge Children’s Hospital, which both take monetary donations online.
Despite Houston’s monumental rebuilding task, the city recently sent 55 pallets of goods to Puerto Rico. Bill Baldwin, who runs the Harvey Relief Hub, said he wanted to show that Houstonians will do for their fellow citizens “as the nation” did for them.
God bless that American spirit. Puerto Rico needs more of us to show it.
Todd Hitt is CEO of Kiddar Capital, a D.C.-area private equity firm.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.