After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, “FRONTLINE” and NPR spent seven months investigating the federal government’s woeful response to one of the worst disasters in modern U.S. history. “Blackout in Puerto Rico” retraced the island’s history as an American territory, revealing the inconsistencies of U.S. policy over the years even as corporations profited from the cheap labor supply and the local government piled up billions in debt through municipal bonds. The piece interspersed interviews and footage to reveal how Puerto Rico’s financial crisis wiped out billions of dollars of wealth and adversely affected maintenance of the island’s long-neglected infrastructure, including its decades-old electrical grid, roads and waterpumping stations, leaving the island vulnerable to a major storm. When Hurricane Maria did hit, the film showed that the federal government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were woefully unprepared to handle the disaster. Reporters obtained documents that painted a picture of a relief agency in chaos, struggling with contracts, basic supplies and an untrained workforce. Its emergency sheltering program was so poorly run that one of the companies hired to supply emergency tarps for the island imported the tarps from China — a violation of federal rules — and had to be suspended. With many locals abandoning their homeland, this devastating reportage concluded that the island’s future rests largely in the hands of its own people.
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