July 10, 2018
Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the superb update on the fiscal impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the U.S. Virgin Islands by Jason Bram and Lauren Thomas of the New York Federal Reserve.
Much more dependent on tourism than Puerto Rico, the authors noted that there has been far less attention to the fiscal ravages of the two storms despite the fact that St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, and a number of smaller islands suffered comparable devastation. No doubt, they point out, this is in part due to their much smaller population: the U.S. Virgin Islands is home to about 105,000 Americans—1/30th Puerto Rico’s population. It is home to Claude O. Markoe Elementary School in Christiansted, where, long, long ago, this author taught school as part of training for the Peace Corps to teach in Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, in Grand Gedah County, Liberia.
The Fed authors reminded us that the Virgin Islands had already been fiscally weakened prior to the hurricanes in the wake of a shutdown of a major refinery on St. Croix in 2012—a shutdown which dramatically increased the dependence on tourism: employment dropped by about 15 percent between 2011 and 2014; it has changed little since. Then, last September 20th, Hurricane Maria smote St. Croix where, as they described it, the “magnitude of the damage and disruption for the territory as a whole was unprecedented in recent history.” Adding to the physical and fiscal misery, the Virgin Islands could not count on any assistance from Puerto Rico—and, as we have noted based upon the devastating lack of help from the federal government, the U.S. Virgin Islands were mostly left to fend for themselves.
The economic, physical, and fiscal damage, according to the latest available data, meant that total employment in the U.S. Virgin Islands dropped by an estimated 12% between August 2017—right before Hurricanes Irma and Maria—and November of that year; but by May of this year, the authors found that only a fraction of those job losses, about 600, had been reversed. Indeed, it appears that the fiscal and economic effects of Irma and Maria were “substantially more severe in the Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico, where employment fell by about 6 percent right after Maria.”
Such a disparate outcome would, they wrote, seem unexpected, especially when considering not only the widespread power outages and pathetic FEMA responses which affected so much of Puerto Rico for so very long—and began to drain the U.S. territory of those most fiscally and physically able to leave for the mainland, especially when compared to the Virgin Islands, where “literally everyone lives within a few miles of the coastline,” unlike Puerto Rico where the steep mountains vastly complicated the task of restoring power to hospitals and police and emergency response centers, leading the Fed authors to pose the question: “With this greater disruption of everyday life occurring in Puerto Rico, why would the economic effect appear considerably more severe in the Virgin Islands?”
The authors note that a critical distinction relates to the Virgin Islands’ high dependence on tourism—a reliance which can be especially pernicious in the wake of a major natural disaster. Thus, they wrote, because tourism tends to be particularly sensitive to the aftermath of natural disasters, “the Virgin Islands’ dependence on this industry largely explains the relatively severe economic hit,” contrasting that with Puerto Rico’s much more diversified economy, illustrating the difference by noting that Puerto Rico’s hotel/accommodation industry, which represents just over 2% of private-sector jobs in Puerto Rico, accounts for about 13% of jobs in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thus, one fiscal outcome of the storm was the hotel/tourist industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced an especially steep slump after the storm: as of last December, employment in that industry had fallen by 1,300 jobs, or 35%; employment in the broader leisure and hospitality sector—which also includes restaurants and bars but largely caters to visitors—fell by just under 30%. Nearby in Puerto Rico, in comparison, tourism and hospitality job losses accounted for only about 25% of the total job loss.
The Fed writers also examined the contrasting capacities of the two U.S. territories to accommodate tourists, writing that the damage wrought to hotels in the Virgin Islands after the two hurricanes significantly impacted the capacity for fiscal recovery: by the middle of last May, nearly 90% of Puerto Rico’s 149 hotels had reopened. In contrast, only 60% of the Virgin Islands’ had—adding that, in the Virgin Islands, relief workers were being housed in many of the available rooms, reducing the capacity for tourists or business travelers—and noting: “Remarkably, there has been virtually no new hotel construction in the Virgin Islands for more than two decades.” With the latter, they note, adding to the fiscal challenges to the U.S. Virgin Islands, because of the related sharp decline in restaurant business—finding that local economies had contracted far more sharply in the Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico, where the surge of rescue workers, including from FEMA and army personnel, utility crews, and construction workers, helped offset the loss of tourists.
Now, they note, the key challenge for the U.S. Virgin Islands’ economy is to restart its vital tourism, noting that the critical steps “appear to be twofold: restoring its capacity to accommodate overnight guests, and encouraging visitors to come,” but, critically, also noting that, in the long-term, the Virgin Islands confront a dilemma: “Is it best to focus resources and policy on a key industry like tourism, which brings in money from outside, or should policy place more of an emphasis on diversifying into other industries, which may be less vulnerable to the periodic hurricane?”