Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico on Sunday afternoon, causing widespread destruction, leaving 1.4 million residents without power and 700,000 without running water. The National Weather Service has warned that the Category 1 storm will cause “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding.” In fact, the slow-moving hurricane had fallen more than 30 inches of rain in parts of Puerto Rico starting Monday, when it made landfall in the Dominican Republic. Only 100,000 Puerto Ricans have seen them restored energy so far.
According to the governor of Puerto Rico, Fiona left more rain in parts of Puerto Rico than Hurricane Maria, which made landfall almost exactly five years ago and caused an estimated 4,645 deaths. As the water level in the Guaónica River rose, a temporary metal bridge, built after Hurricane María destroyed the previous one, it floated away in the flood waters. A man died during the power outage while trying to operate a generator, and Governor Pedro Pierluisi informs that the National Guard had rescued more than 1,000 stranded people.
Hurricane Fiona “catches the island at the worst time, right after an incomplete recovery from Hurricane Maria when the power grid is very fragile,” said Juan Declet-Barreto, a senior social scientist who studies climate vulnerability at the Union of Scientists. Concerned, a non-profit advocacy group. “It’s a very, very difficult situation.”
Slow hurricanes like Fiona are expected to become more common in a warming world. Climate researchers have discovered that once storms make landfall, they now move more slowly and taking longer to weaken compared to previous years, which increases the amount of rain they are likely to produce. While it is too early to know the exact role climate change played in the intensity of Hurricane Fiona, Declet-Barreto said global warming is creating conditions that allow for rapid intensification of hurricanes, lots of rain and strong winds.
Puerto Rico was supposed to be better prepared for the next big storm after Maria. After the devastating hurricane of 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, allocated $25 billion to help island municipalities rebuild parks, community centers, and other much-needed infrastructure. but in Associated Press Review of government data found that only 21 percent of more than 5,500 government-funded recovery projects were completed five years later. Of the 78 municipalities on the island, seven reported that not a single project had started. More than 3,600 Puerto Rican homes were still covered with blue tarps distributed half a decade ago.
The island has also spent huge amounts of money repairing its power grid, which was vulnerable during both storms. Until last year, the grid was completely under the control of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or AEE, a public service company owned by the Puerto Rican government. Saddled with $9 billion in debt, the utility declared bankrupt months before Hurricane Maria made landfall. In the midst of restructuring its debt, the utility reached an agreement to contract the transmission and distribution of electricity to LUMA Energy, a private company. LUMA officially took over operations in June 2021, but Puerto Ricans have seen little improvement in power reliability since then. In fact, blackouts have persisted over the past year, causing Puerto Ricans to take to the streets demanding that LUMA’s 15-year contract be cancelled. A particularly terrible blackout it happened in april when a fire at the island’s main power station caused blackouts for half a million people. There was no power for days, prompting the education department to cancel classes.
After LUMA took over last year, it failed to honor existing collective bargaining contracts with a local union. As a result, the The company lost many experienced workers with decades of institutional knowledge. “LUMA had to start from scratch building a workforce and even to this point, they don’t have enough people to work on the network,” said Adi Martínez-Román, director of operations for the Resilience Law Center at the University of Puerto Rico. LUMA and PREPA have failed to build a climate-resilient grid and instead have been submitting project plans that rebuild infrastructure to pre-Maria standards, he said.
Martínez-Román pointed out that a 10-year plan by PREPA to use FEMA funds to rebuild the network includes the construction of natural gas plants and expands the island’s dependence on fossil fuels. As an island, Puerto Rico relies on ships to transport fossil fuels to its power plants, making it unreliable during hurricanes and vulnerable to fluctuations in oil and gas prices. Puerto Ricans already pay double the national average cost of energy in the United States.
“We are an island that has sun almost all the time,” he said. “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime missed opportunity to use federal funding for a decentralized rooftop solar-based grid.”
PREPA has also been plagued by corruption scandals and accusations that it favors US-based private companies over local contractors. After the hurricane, PREPA awarded a $300 million contract to Whitefish Energy Holdings, a Montana-based company, to help repair the island’s power grid. The company began to bill PREPA for linemen at a rate that was almost 17 times the average salary for local workers. A congressional investigation into PREPA’s contracts followed, and the head of ESA he eventually resigned afterwards. According to a 2020 investigation, the utility continues to award contracts disproportionately to companies based in the continental US. The reporters found that of the $4.4 billion in contracts PREPA had awarded since Hurricane Maria, $3.7 billion went to US companies.
At a press conference on Sunday.Governor Pierluisi promised the blackout won’t last as long as the one that followed Hurricane Maria, which left some communities without power for nearly a year. The network will be restored in several days or weeks, he said.
“LUMA brigades continue to work to stabilize the power grid,” said Abner Gómez, LUMA director of public safety. “We will continue to work non-stop until service is restored to all customers and the power grid is fully restored.”