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Federal Reserve President Says Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico Must Take ‘Painful Actions’ To Restore Their Economies After Hurricanes

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NEW YORK — The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico will need to take painful actions to restore their economies amid the hurricane devastation, New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley said Thursday.

The island territories, especially Puerto Rico, already faced dire economic realities even before hurricanes slammed into them early last fall, but the recovery now is complicated by shrinking populations, high debt, high unemployment and plunging growth, Dudley said.

“Puerto Rico now must not only complete the recovery from the hurricane, but also do what is necessary to get on a sustainable economic and fiscal path,” Dudley said in prepared remarks.

“Given the island’s high debt, unfunded pension obligations, declining population, and now the hurricane, the outlook may seem grim.”

While he provided few specifics on the steps needed, he said they likely would be unpopular.

Hurricane Irma strafed the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in early September and two weeks later the islands were hit again by Hurricane Maria.

New York Fed data showed the storms destroyed more than 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s crops amid communications outages and fuel shortages while transportation links were cut.

The White House has faced stinging criticism for its support of recovery and reconstruction in the storm’s aftermath, which left more than 1,000 people dead in Puerto Rico alone.

Even before the storms, both territories were in deep economic distress. Since 2006, economic growth is down 15 percent in Puerto Rico, which was facing a severe debt crisis as well. Growth had fallen 26 percent in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and employment has fallen about 15 percent in both territories.

In the storms, Puerto Rico suffered “by far” the most severe power outage in U.S. history in terms of total customer hours lost, according to the New York Fed.

And people have fled Puerto Rico for the mainland, with the net number of passengers by air leaving the island running 160,000 above trend between August and November.

Satellite imagery also showed electrical lighting on the island — a proxy for economic activity — fell sharply after the storms, with the landscapes of Puerto Rico still only 76 percent  as bright, while the US Virgin Islands is just 56 percent as bright.

As tourism has begun to recover, job markets on the islands have begun to stabilize after sharp drops following the storms.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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