The US territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands 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 late last summer, 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 US 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 US 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 US 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.