Rural Puerto Rico is a Cash Desert


One less-discussed aspect of Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico may be the difficulties it has imposed on its workforce to access their bank accounts.

With communication outages, electronic banking has virtually suspended. The country has reverted to a cash-first economy.

The situation in the cities is a bit better. But given that so many transportation corridors no longer work reliably, traveling to a city is more laborious. Many people struggle to make their way to the island’s urban centers.

Before Maria, Puerto Rico Had Banking Deserts

The island’s banking infrastructure hasn’t been designed to serve all geographies. The FDIC’s Summary of Deposits indicated that there were 324 bank branches in Puerto Rico as of last June. But most banks have put their branches in San Juan or nearby counties along the island’s northern coastline. Banco Popular has the largest number of branches on the island. Other banks include Oriental Bank, Banco Santander, Scotia Bank, Citibank, Banesco, and First Bank.

However, many areas are severely underbanked. In 39 of Puerto Rico’s 77 counties, there is only one bank branch. San Juan County, on the other hand, has 77 branches. Fifty-seven percent of the island’s branches are located in only seven of its counties. Population centers in Puerto Rico are highly clustered, and as a result, residents in some areas must either not use a bank or travel a long way to visit one.

Much of Puerto Rico’s economy operates outside of the formal economy. According to the Center for a New Economy/Centro Para Una Nueva Economia, think tank focused on issues related to Puerto Rico, 36 percent of households on the island are unbanked.

After Maria, Many Can’t Find Cash

Puerto Rico is now a cash desert. Officials are telling reporters that many people cannot find a functioning ATM. An ATM needs a steady source of electricity and a regular supply of brand new cash. The cash has to come in an armored truck. But although an armored vehicle can survive many challenges, it can’t handle a washed-out roadway. Even in November – ten weeks after the storm left – many roads are still closed.

While some officials say that they do have secure trucks and cash, they often don’t have the needed manpower to deliver the bills.

Delivery problems are only one problem among many. In some cases, ATMs need more than cash and electricity. They need to be replaced. ATMs break down when they are under six feet of water. 

The result is that commerce itself is at a standstill. People need to pay each other, but the instruments necessary to do so are unavailable.

Some estimate that it will be four months before recovery teams can restore the island’s electrical grid.

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