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Hurricane Maria Upends 1st Circuit As Federal Courthouses In Puerto Rico Are Damaged04:03
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A Puerto Rican flag hanging from the balcony of a West Dedham Street apartment building gets whipped around in the wind gusts of Tropical Storm Jose in September. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A Puerto Rican flag hanging from the balcony of a West Dedham Street apartment building gets whipped around in the wind gusts of Tropical Storm Jose in September. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Recovery from Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico is being closely followed in Boston.

Though the connection is little known, Puerto Rico is in the same 1st Circuit of the federal judiciary as Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

And the Court of Appeals is located in Boston, where judges and staffers are working to reopen federal courthouses in Puerto Rico.

'Starting From Scratch'

"What are you hearing?" I ask Judge Juan Torruella. He's a native of San Juan and the first Hispanic member of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Nothing but bad news" comes the answer.

"For all practical matters, Puerto Rico is starting from scratch like Colombo just arrived yesterday," Torruella says. "It's the decimation of things we take for granted."

It was 1493 when Columbus arrived, but there were forests then. Not now, says Torruella.

"Every tree came down."

He had enough warning to get his house boarded up before the hurricane hit the San Juan suburb where the judge lives when he isn't sitting on the bench in Boston, where we talked with him.

The house is intact he's been told, but:

"The island is completely denuded of vegetation," Torruella explains.

He says the chief judge of the district court told him of people in the mountains drinking water from the curb in the road. Regular phone lines are down and cell towers are, too.

How The Courts Are Affected

Susan Goldberg, the circuit executive for the Court of Appeals in Boston, says all three federal courthouses there have been damaged, and most of the roof on the biggest courthouse in San Juan blew away.

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"It's been devastating both in terms of the operations of the court and the lives of the court employees," Goldberg says.

Two of the three courts expect to open to the public next week.

But to open, the courts' employees have to be able to get there. That's the challenge.

"Many employees' living conditions are extremely poor and remain extremely poor. Most of them still do not have electricity. They don't have running water, drinking water."

Susan Goldberg

"Many employees' living conditions are extremely poor and remain extremely poor. Most of them still do not have electricity. They don't have running water, drinking water," Goldberg says. "It's very difficult for them to obtain gas to get to work. And it's difficult to get cash from ATM machines."

The most significant impact on the courts, Goldberg says, has been on the criminal caseload, which is bigger than all the other district courts in the first circuit combined. The federal prison sustained such significant damage that 1200 prisoners were evacuated to facilities in Mississippi and Florida.

'Puerto Ricans Are All U.S. Citizens' 

Torruella, who was appointed a federal judge by President Ford, says the response by the federal government after the hurricane hit might have been more rapid. But he is not pointing fingers though he is defending Puerto Ricans from criticism by President Trump.

"People in Puerto Rico are working very hard to get the island back in place," Torruella says. "The state of the island right now is starting from scratch, and the sooner that viewpoint is accepted up here by the powers that be, the sooner things will get back to normal."

Torruella, a former Olympic sailor, once nicknamed "Juan Torpedo", and known for impassioned and sometimes fearless writing, has long argued for the rights of Puerto Ricans to vote in presidential elections.

"Perversely I should say one good thing that has come out of this hurricane is that people realize that Puerto Rico exists and that not only does it exist, but that it is part of the United States and that Puerto Ricans are all U.S. citizens."

Susan Goldberg, the circuit executive, estimates the courts will be fully running in four to six weeks, though the state of the courts' buildings will take much longer to assess and correct.

This segment aired on October 6, 2017.

Related:

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.

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