Money in the bank but still broke in Puerto Rico

Families in Puerto Rico, many of whom are still without power after Maria, can’t use credit cards, phone payments, or ATMs without electrical power and, as such, can’t buy food, gas, or other necessities because they didn’t have enough cash before the disaster struck, the New York Times reports.


This won’t work after a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria.

The island territory is essentially a cash-only economy right now and has been for more than a week. Grocery stores, even if they have food to sell, can’t process credit card payments and are taking only cash. The same is true at gas stations: even if people have money in their bank accounts, they can’t get to it without power.

About 90 banks and 200 ATMs are working across the island, government officials said. But many open well past their stated business hours and close by 2 or 3 PM.

“We have been getting shipments of money,” the Times quoted Gov Ricardo A Rosselló as saying. “We want to make sure people get access to the money that they need immediately, and recognizing that we are in an emergency situation.”

Cash is like meal rations for residents. How much can they spend each day in order to make it last until the power comes back on and they can get access to their money?

For many people, a typical “disaster kit,” intended for grabbing what they need and evacuating before a hurricane lays waste to their house, only includes cash as an afterthought, alongside important emergency numbers and family health records.

Items that every such a disaster kit should include are on a list published by Fox News. Listing cash as the first of several “important documents and items,” in position 9 of the “10 Things You Need to Have in Your Disaster Emergency Kit,” the article relegates cash to a role of secondary importance in a disaster and doesn’t say how much to have on hand.

I’m not suggesting water isn’t an important item to have in such a kit (water is first on the list, and putrid water is still flooding Puerto Rican streets), but after days of being without power, people start to realize how important cash is in today’s computer-driven world of commerce.

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Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.