Cash is king in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico

Inside Subprime: October 10, 2017

By Caroline Thompson

After two successive hurricanes knocked out power across the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, residents are struggling to rebuild their lives with limited access to everyday necessities. While it’s been nearly a month since Hurricane Maria came tearing through the island, only 15 percent of its 3.4 million residents currently have electricity.

This has made business as usual a difficult prospect for Puerto Rican business owners. Although retail and commerce have picked up slightly in the past few weeks, the lack of access to internet and electricity means the vast majority of stores on the island can accept only cash, not credit cards.

In a statement to Reuters on Friday, Richard Carrion, chairman of Puerto Rico’s biggest bank, Banco Popular, told reporters that just 85 of the bank’s 169 Puerto Rico locations were open, and only 40 percent of its ATMs were in operation.

“This is not acceptable,” said Carrion. “The economy will suffer, and it may push people who are on the fence to say, ‘we’re leaving.'”

As thousands of Puerto Ricans flee the island for the mainland U.S., Carrion’s fears are not unfounded. Those who are choosing, for now, to stay put, are facing hours-long lines to get cash, and a shortage of paper bills to boot. To help combat the growing need for money, the New York Federal Reserve has said it will be shipping extra cash to Puerto Rico in the coming days.

“Demand for cash is extraordinarily high right now,” New York Fed officials said in a statement to Newsday last week. “Demand will evolve as depository institutions regain power, armored car services are able to reach branches and ATMs are once again active. We have adequate inventory to meet demand from depository institutions on the island.”

Cash may be the only option for Puerto Ricans for the foreseeable future, as many estimate that the electric grid repair may take months to complete.

Read more about hurricane relief, post-storm scams, and how to donate to help the people of Puerto Rico:

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