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Why hurricanes are a disaster for Puerto Rico

By Carlos A. Suárez Carrasquillo and Fernando Tormos-Aponte

Five years after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona killed at least four people, caused widespread flooding and left hundreds of thousands of residents without water or electricity. Maria caused extensive damage to Puerto Rico’s power grid in 2017 that left many residents without power for months. Its reconstruction has been hampered by technical, political and financial challenges.

Carlos A. Suárez and Fernando Tormos-Aponte are social scientists who study Latin American politics and environmental justice. They explain some of the factors that have hampered efforts to recover from Maria and prepare for subsequent storms on this island of 3.2 million people.

Failed promises of privatization

Carlos A. Suárez Carrasquillo, Associate Professor of Instruction, Political Science, Center for Latin American Studies, University of Florida

In less than a century, Puerto Rico’s electrical system has come full circle from private provision of electric power to a state-led effort to democratize access to energy, and then back to a public-private partnership with a strong neoliberal distinctive character. However, Puerto Ricans still face daily challenges in obtaining affordable and efficient electricity services.

When the island’s electrical power system was created in the late 19th century, private companies initially produced and sold electricity. During the New Deal era in the 1930s, the government assumed this role. People came to see electrical energy as a heritageor birthright, which the government would provide, sometimes subsidizing power for low-income residents.

In the 1940s, Puerto Rico launched Operation Bootstrap, a rapid industrialization program that sought to attract foreign investment in industries such as textiles and petrochemicals. An important element was reliable and cheap electricity, provided by the state through the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, a public corporation known in English as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or AEE.

Many interests rallied around PREPA, including elected officials, unions, domestic oil importers, and most importantly, the Puerto Rican public. Patronage and partisan politics often influenced the company’s financial, hiring, and contracting decisions.

PREPA took on significant debt, often at the request of elected officials. For example, in 2011, then House Speaker Jennifer González legislated for the company to obtain a line of credit from the Government Development Bank to reduce energy bills before the 2012 elections.

government Alejandro García Padilla and the Puerto Rico Financial Management and Oversight Board imposed austerity policies in 2012-2017 that subsequent governors upheld. This left PREPA with limited resources to prepare for Hurricane Maria or make repairs later.

Juan Antonio Molina drives his old jeep through a flooded road in Toa Alta from Hurricane Fiona.

Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via Getty

In 2021, the Puerto Rican government and financial control board privatized the power supply on the island. PREPA continued to generate electricity, but LUMA Energy, a US-Canadian consortium, was awarded a 15-year contract to transmit and deliver power to customers.

LUMA is at the center of many controversies. It has resisted recognizing the largest and most powerful union in Puerto Rico as the exclusive representative of its employees. The monthly electricity bills of many consumers have increased significantly. LUMA was supposed to improve Puerto Rico’s network, with billions of dollars in federal support, but the outages continued. Critics have called the company secretive and corrupt.

Labor, environmental and academic groups have offered comprehensive alternatives, such as Quiero Sol, a proposal to install distributed solar energy throughout the island, to reduce Puerto Rico’s dependence on fossil fuels and what they see as an incompetent private administration.

But the changes needed to address Puerto Rico’s energy crisis are inherently political. Its enactment will require the support of the federal fiscal oversight board and Puerto Rican politicians. I believe that the public will have to mobilize and come together to convince the authorities that PREPA of yesteryear and LUMA of today are antiquated organizations that cannot meet the current needs of Puerto Ricans.

View of Highway 824 in Toa Alta, damaged by the flooding caused by Hurricane Fiona.

Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via Getty

Who receives disaster aid?

Fernando Tormos-Aponte, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh

Disaster aid has been slow to arrive in Puerto Rico. Five years after Hurricane Maria, the US government is channeling funds to rebuild and strengthen the archipelago’s energy infrastructure. But only some of the planned multibillion-dollar projects have been approved, even partially.

In addition to the privatization of the power system, residents have also faced bureaucratic hurdles and the use of disaster resources for political gain.

Damage assessments after Maria were rough estimates because the storm was so destructive. The US government ultimately put the total damage to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands at $90 billion.

Now, Hurricane Fiona has caused more damage, which will require even more significant investment. No government authority has enough resources on the ground in Puerto Rico to make such an assessment, let alone react quickly to the disaster.

Local elected officials are often eager to claim responsibility for securing funding. However, investments in disaster preparedness, such as upgrading the power grid, have less impact on public perceptions of government performance than recovery funds that are disbursed soon after a disaster strikes.

I hope that the Biden administration will seek to respond faster and more substantively to Hurricane Fiona than the Trump administration did after Hurricane Maria, but not necessarily out of compassion.

Presidents tend to use disaster resources to gain electoral advantage, reward supporters, and present themselves as capable disaster managers. And they are usually more vulnerable in election years.

Samuel Santiago removes mud from the front of his house in the San José neighborhood of Toa Baja.

Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via Getty

Maria hit Puerto Rico during Donald Trump’s first year in office. Puerto Rican voters lean Democratic when they move to the continental US (as a commonwealth, the archipelago does not cast electoral votes), so Trump likely did not perceive Puerto Ricans as important to his election. The Trump administration made deliberate efforts to delay the disbursement of Hurricane Maria recovery aid and denied the true cost of the disaster.

By contrast, Joe Biden relied more on minority support for his 2020 presidential victory, with Hurricane Fiona arriving just two months before the 2022 midterms. Responding offers Biden a chance to show he’s a capable disaster manager and attract votes.

Yet even if the Biden administration is better organized and more responsive, marginalized communities are often hampered by administrative burdens when trying to access government resources.

For example, I interviewed mayors in Puerto Rico who issued contracts to local providers to meet urgent needs after the Federal Emergency Management Agency promised reimbursement. To this day, FEMA has not paid some of these mayors, and the mayors fear that local vendors will not want to do more business with their governments.

Identifying and applying for US Government grants is a complex and tedious process that requires training. Access to that training is uneven, and language barriers often prevent communities from seeking grants.

After Hurricane Maria, few Puerto Rican communities had the resources and support to address these barriers. In my opinion, governments must prioritize marginalized communities in their response to Hurricane Fiona to avoid reproducing the inequalities that marked the recovery from Hurricane Maria. Elected officials must demand transparency and accountability from those tasked with distributing aid, while holding to the same standards.

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