Why Hurricanes Are Such a Disaster for Puerto Rico

By Carlos A. Suárez Carrasquillo and Fernando Tormos-Aponte

Five years later Hurricane Maria Hurricane Fiona devastated Puerto Rico, killing at least four people, causing widespread flooding and leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without water or electricity. Maria caused massive damage to Puerto Rico’s power grid 2017 left many residents without electricity for months. Its rebuilding 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 a number of factors that have hindered Maria’s efforts to recover and prepare for the next storms on this island of 3.2 million people.

Failure from the privatization process

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

In less than a century, Puerto Rico’s electricity system has gone from private electricity supply to a state-led effort to democratize access to electricity, and then back to back to a public-private partnership with a neoliberal characteristic. However, Puerto Ricans still face daily challenges in obtaining affordable and efficient electrical services.

When the island’s electricity system was created in the late 1800s, private companies initially produced and sold electricity. During the New Deal in the 1930s, the government took over this role. People come to see electricity as one Patrimonioor birthright, the government will sometimes provide by subsidizing power to lower-income populations.

In the 1940s, Puerto Rico launched Operation Bootstrap, a program of rapid industrialization aimed at attracting foreign investment in industries such as textiles and petrochemicals. One key factor is cheap and reliable electricity, provided by the state through the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, a public consortium known in English as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA.

Many interests rally around PREPA, including elected officials, labor unions, domestic oil importers, and most importantly, the Puerto Rican public. Party patronage and politics often influence a company’s hiring, contracting, and financial decisions.

PREPA has taken on a substantial amount of debt, often at the request of elected officials. For example, in 2011, then-House Speaker Jennifer González legislated the company to obtain a line of credit from Banco Gubernamental de Fomento to ease its power bills before the 2012 election.

Governor Alejandro García Padilla and Puerto Rico’s Board of Supervisors and Financial Regulations imposed austerity policies in 2012-2017 that were left in place by subsequent governors. This leaves PREPA with limited resources to prepare for Hurricane Maria or make repairs afterwards.

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

Pedro Portal / Miami Herald via Getty

In 2021, the Puerto Rican government and financial control board privatized electricity delivery on the island. PREPA continues to produce electricity, but LUMA Energy, an American-Canadian corporation, has received a 15-year contract to transmit and supply electricity 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 sole representative of employees. Many consumers’ monthly electricity bills have increased dramatically. LUMA was supposed to upgrade Puerto Rico’s power grid, with billions of dollars in federal support, but the outage continued. Critics have called the company secretive and corrupt.

Labor groups, environmentalists, and academics have come up with comprehensive alternatives, such as Queremos Sol, which proposes island-wide distributed solar installations, to reduce Puerto Rico’s dependence on fossil fuels and what they see as incompetent private management.

But the changes needed to address Puerto Rico’s energy crisis are inherently political. Their implementation would require support from the federal financial supervisory board and Puerto Rican politicians. I believe the public will have to lobby and rally to convince the authorities that the old PREPA and today’s LUMA are antiquated institutions that cannot meet the current needs of Puerto Ricans.

A view of road 824 in Toa Alta, damaged by 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 reach Puerto Rico. Five years after Hurricane Maria, the US government is providing funding to rebuild and harden the archipelago’s energy infrastructure. But only a few of the multimillion-dollar projects already planned have even been partially approved.

In addition to privatizing the power system, citizens also face bureaucratic obstacles and the use of natural disaster resources for political gain.

The damage assessment after Maria is a rough estimate because the storm was so destructive. The US government eventually calculated the total damage to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands at $90 billion.

Now that Hurricane Fiona has caused additional damage, this will require even more substantial investments. No government agency has the resources on the ground in Puerto Rico to conduct such an assessment, let alone respond quickly to a disaster.

Locally elected officials are often eager to claim responsibility for securing funding. However, investments in disaster preparedness, such as grid improvements, have less impact on public perception of government performance than recovery funds. disbursed immediately after the disaster occurred.

I would expect the Biden administration to find a quicker and more substantive response 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 competent disaster managers. And they are often more vulnerable during election years.

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

Pedro Portal / Miami Herald via Getty

Maria went to Puerto Rico during Donald Trump’s first year in office. Puerto Rican voters lean Democratic as they move to the mainland US — as a commonwealth, Islands do not vote for electors—So Trump may not consider Puerto Ricans important to his election. The Trump administration has engaged in deliberate efforts to delay the disbursement of Hurricane Maria aid and has denied the true damage estimate of the disaster.

By contrast, Joe Biden leaned more heavily on minority support for his 2020 presidential win, and Hurricane Fiona hit just two months before the 2022 midterm elections. The response gives Biden a shot. opportunity to prove yourself as a capable disaster manager and garner votes.

However, even if the Biden administration is better organized and more responsive, disadvantaged communities are often hampered by administrative burdens as they try to access government resources.

For example, I interviewed mayors in Puerto Rico, who contracted local providers to address urgent needs after the Federal Emergency Management Agency promised reimbursement. To this day, FEMA has not returned some of these mayors, and the mayors are concerned that local suppliers will not want to do further business with their governments.

Identifying and applying for U.S. government benefits is a complicated and tedious process that requires training. Access to that training is uneven, and language barriers often prevent communities from seeking funding.

After Hurricane Maria, few Puerto Rican communities had the resources and support needed to deal with these barriers. In my view, governments must prioritize disadvantaged communities in the response to Hurricane Fiona to avoid recreating the inequalities that marked Hurricane Maria’s recovery. Elected officials must demand transparency and accountability from those tasked with distributing aid, while holding themselves to the same standards.

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