How Hurricane Maria will be more costly for Puerto Rico than Harvey was for Texas

Maria’s estimated damage amounts to $10,000 for each Puerto Rican.
Maria’s estimated damage amounts to $10,000 for each Puerto Rican.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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Hurricane Maria was somewhat less of a weather monster than the two big storms that preceded it. Harvey dumped record amounts of rain over parts of Texas, and Irma’s tropical-storm force winds covered an area wider than the Florida peninsula.

In Puerto Rico, Maria’s devastation has been multiplied by the island’s more limited ability to absorb it.

In dollars, the damage from Maria will likely be much smaller than that of Harvey or Irma, according to estimates by Enki Research, a nonprofit group that tracks natural disasters. (The estimate for Irma only includes damage in the US mainland.)

However, the scale of Maria’s destruction grows when you look at it the context of Puerto Rico’s geographic size. Despite their brutality, Harvey and Irma left swaths of Texas and Florida largely unscathed. In contrast, the bulk of Puerto Rico’s smaller territory was heavily hit by Maria. A big portion of the population remained without power, or drinking water days after the storm made landfall.

Relative to the size of Puerto Rico’s economy, Maria’s damage is also much larger than the other two hurricanes. Enki doesn’t break down figures by state. But even when considering the total US damages from Harvey, which spread beyond Texas, the amount would account for roughly 5% of the state’s gross domestic product, based on Enki’s figures. The destruction from Irma, which spilled to other coastal states in the US mainland, is equivalent to around 6% of Florida’s GDP. Maria’s projected cost in Puerto Rico, which Enki calculated just for the island, is roughly a third of its economy.

The task of rebuilding Puerto Rico is even more daunting considering the fragile state of its economy, which has been hollowed by a debt crisis and the exodus (link in Spanish) of Puerto Ricans to the mainland. Divided among fewer residents, the costs of the damage are considerably higher than in Texas and Florida. Again, using Enki’s total continental US damage figures for Harvey and Irma, the per capita cost comes to about $3,000 for Texans and Floridians, respectively. For Puerto Rico, Maria’s per capita cost is roughly $10,000.

Puerto Rico is going to need some serious help from Washington to cover that price tag.