On Sept. 18, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico. The storm brought over 30 inches of rain to parts of the island. Fiona triggered flooding and persisting islandwide blackouts.
Puerto Rico has had fragile energy infrastructure for quite some time. However, it became prevalent after the landfall of Hurricane Maria. The Category 4 hurricane that struck the island in 2017 and caused a blackout that lasted for 328 days.
There were many contributing factors to the initial blackout. First, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which is in charge of the energy grid on the island, declared bankruptcy early on in 2017. Additionally, Hurricane Maria knocked out transmission lines when it struck the island. Overall, the energy grid was outdated and in need of upgrades.
Following Hurricane Maria, the Trump Administration was slow to take action. It was not until 2020, three years later, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved $9.6 billion towards rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid. This was after the two largest power plants on the island were damaged by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake earlier that same year.
In contrast to Hurricane Maria, The Biden Administration’s response to Hurricane Fiona has been swift. Biden approved Puerto Rico’s Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s request for an expedited major disaster declaration.
Nubian Message spoke with Valeria Gomez Perez, a second-year student majoring in Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation. Perez is from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico and was on the island when Hurricane Maria struck.
NUBIAN MESSAGE: Why do you think Puerto Rico has struggled to recover from Hurricane Maria? How do you think Hurricane Fiona will affect the island?
VALERIA GOMEZ PEREZ: I feel like it’s mainly an issue of infrastructure and this concept of…not being able to have the resources to fix the existing problems within the island. The reason why Hurricane Maria was so devastating was because…we have a power system that is from [the] 1920s/1940s. So, what that means is the parts are really old, they’re bound to get damaged a lot quicker…they could not withstand 200 [mph] winds…You start seeing communities face…food insecurity…no ability to cook food, no ability to keep food refrigerated, it means no access to schools [and] no access to work…you are going to see the overall population struggle to do day-to-day things. When you add Puerto Rico’s inability to make effective political decisions quickly for themselves…[for example the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico] none of the officials are elected by Puerto Ricans…You have a people who are not able to have authority over themselves, make decisions for themselves [or be] able to allocate resources to the communities who need it the most.
NM: Have you ever been personally affected by the energy grid system on the island?
PEREZ: Yes…whenever the hurricane passed [through], the initial shock is insane. You go outside and you don’t recognize the surroundings. Like my neighborhood was destroyed. [My family and I] took a lap around [the neighborhood] and my mom grew up in the neighborhood so she was absolutely devastated to see everything…In terms of the power grid, I was without power for six months and I know families that were [out of power] for like ten…People lost their houses, people lost their lives as well without access to insulin or generators… [my family and I] were able to have a generator and we also have a water collection system so…it was a dire situation but we were able to manage. My grandpa…at the time was bed-bound and [relied] on oxygen. So what that meant is that every few hours someone had to go…and switch with whoever was watching [my grandfather], take [the battery from] his oxygen tank home, charge it, replace it and do the same thing every two hours on shifts. That was obviously horrible for him…to be reduced to a shell of a person because you do not have access to the basic necessities you need in order to live…is ridiculous. More than anything it was a feeling of being abandoned, being let down, being cast aside and just desperation for change.
NM: What do you think of Puerto Rico’s relation to the United States? Do you think the relationship contributes to Puerto Rico’s response to the Hurricane?
PEREZ: In [Puerto Rico], there are a few ways people will go about the issue. Some people advocate for what we have now which is an incorporated territory…I call it essentially a colony. There’s people who advocate for statehood and being fully incorporated into the [United States]. There’s people who advocate for independence from the [United States]. I believe in independence because colonial relationships can never be fixed by just submitting to your oppressor. The [United States] has been exactly that. [There is] the Jones Act which has been limiting who Puerto Rico can trade for and limiting its economic development. You have the illegal national debt…you cannot loan out money knowing that people cannot repay it. Puerto Rico could not pay back that loan and it has not paid back that loan. You have Act 22…an act that gives tax cuts on capital gains [and more] to American investors moving into the island to ‘promote economic growth. What that is doing in practice is pushing people [out] because [Americans] keep buying real estate [which] pushes out local communities. [Foreign investors] are also buying up huge chunks of land to turn them into resorts. So you have a Hawaii situation where [Puerto Rico] is not [Puerto Rico] for the people. It is [Puerto Rico] the vacation spot. I don’t think any of that can be fixed by us becoming a state. Some people think becoming a state will give us more funding, but none of the people making these decisions are Puerto Ricans. How could they possibly know [what] to put this money into? How can we trust them when historically they have been pouring this money into their own pockets instead of where it needs to be?
Puerto Rico has a long history with the United States that has impacted the economy, culture and power. College of Natural Resources student, Valeria Gomez-Perez, shared her perspective on this relationship and its relation to energy on the island. For ways to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona, check out this article.