In the aftermath of the Great Depression, Puerto Rico was rebuilding in more ways than one. Aside from dealing with the impacts of a global financial crisis, the island had recently been battered by two massive storms: San Felipe II in 1928 and San Ciprian in 1932. The latter killed at least 257 people and destroyed more than 40,000 buildings. The former killed more people than Hurricane Katrina, and is still considered the second deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, claiming the lives of up to 3,000 people in Florida and an estimated 300 people in Puerto Rico—and leaving as many as 500,000 Puerto Rican residents homeless. Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy—one of the island’s major sources of income—was decimated. In between the two storms was another: Black Tuesday.
As the continental United States would find when the depression set in, relief programs then consisted of a loose patchwork of private charities, faith-based aid and philanthropy. That patchwork was looser still in Puerto Rico. The corrective to that lack of infrastructure—the New Deal—was created by the Roosevelt Administration amid massive popular pressure, and the very real threat of a revolution. Lesser known is the fact that the program extended to Puerto Rico, also in response to pressure from the Left, and revolutionized everything from highways to education to public health.
As Puerto Ricans begin to rebuild in the wreckage of Hurricane Maria, the commonwealth’s experience with the New Deal offers an alternative path to the one likely to be put forward by the private interests currently swarming the island to build nests in the debris.