F.C. Developer Todd Hitt Assesses Recovery Effort in Puerto Rico

ON A RELIEF MISSION to help out in Puerto Rico Tuesday, Falls Church developer Todd Hitt (right) traveled with former Puerto Rico governor Louis Fortuno (left) and met with his friend, D.C. restaurateur José Andrés (center), whose massive food relief effort is proving legendary. (Photo: Abby Slitor)

City of Falls Church-based developer Todd Hitt rode his private jet on a humanitarian mission to San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, delivering food and supplies to a Ronald McDonald House and a children’s hospital there and getting a sensuous appreciation for the overwhelming needs there in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s disastrous impact three weeks ago.

Hitt told the News-Press in an interview at his central F.C. office yesterday that he will be back with much more, though immediately on his mind is how to help get 25,000 pounds of donated StarKist tuna from the Miami port over to the hurricane-ravaged island.With the shipping lanes clogged up, the only way to get the food there is by plane, and that will be expensive, he noted.The particular problem of relief efforts with Puerto Rico have to do with it being an island. It has no overland access that make relief efforts in Houston, for example, so much easier.There is also no heavy presence of Fortune 500 companies there, which in the case of Houston, also ravaged by a hurricane this season, has helped so much to speed its recovery.Puerto Rico’s case “is a logistical nightmare,” Hitt said, “and incredibly costly.”

But there’s a “can do” spirit among the people there that was heartening to see, he said.

He flew into San Juan Tuesday morning and because of the clogged logistics at the airport, had to leave later the same day. “There is a tremendous upbeat spirit there among the people, a lot of resiliency and hard work being done.”

He flew there accompanied by an old friend, the former governor of the island Luis Fortuno. And once there, he met with his long-time friend, Washington, D.C. restaurateur Jose Andres, who is orchestrating an incredible food relief program there centered at the national stadium in San Juan. He has 11 satellite food distribution operations around the island that, combined, serve 70,000 hot meals a day. In just the last two and a half weeks, Andres has served over a million meals. His operation is called Chefs for Puerto Rico.

Hitt also met the current governor of Puerto Rico, Louis Fortina, with the head of economic development and commerce, the secretary of housing and urban development there and the head of security for the island.

“We need to figure out a path for helping that is not cost prohibitive,” Hitt said, and that can spur a major private sector effort there. He hopes to be a leader in that effort.

“They need everything,” he said. “I would say they are currently nine months to a year away from being able to operate with a modicum of infrastructure, and longer than that to rebuild it right.”

He said the key to the recovery effort needs to be have the right people in place, to have major investment from the mainland, including for billions of dollars for infrastructure, with multiple years of getting the recovery right. There will be many years of economic development needed there.

He said one of the biggest problems that he could see involved a lack of awareness in the continental U.S. of how bad things are there, and how involved the citizens of the island, all U.S. citizens, are in the national U.S. economy.

He noted that 10 percent of the population of the island (over three million total) has participated in in military service for the U.S.
While efforts are underway to get palletes of bottled water there, needed even more are generator parts so that water can be pumped out of the ground.

The problems associated with being an island complicate everything, he said.

In the case of New Jersey after superstorm Sandy, if the state had to rely on its own workforce to fix the problems, it would still be struggling, but it was able to draw help from all across the U.S. That is the kind of challenge that Puerto Rico faces.

Hitt said he found officials there to be upbeat and pleased by the federal government’s efforts there, including by FEMA, but that so much more is needed.

A frequent visitor to the island, Hitt said he was dismayed to see flying in that the bright green cover of the island had been turned a dingy brown, as the salt in the water that was driven over it by the hurricane killed off so much of the vegetation.

There is absolutely no functioning economy there now, including no tourism, but that in their eagerness to help themselves, hundreds of thousands are involved in volunteer efforts to try to bring the island back to life.

“I will be back,” Hitt said.