Almost two weeks ago, on Sunday, September 18th, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico, almost exactly five years after the devastating Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Maria caused nearly 3,000 deaths across Puerto Rico and had devastating effects on the area’s power, water, and health care systems. The power grid still remains fragile, so much so that every single one of the island’s 1.5 million customers lost electricity before Fiona made landfall.
Puerto Rico residents have consistently suffered from power outages, despite Governor Pedro Pierluisi calling the system “stable” in an interview earlier this year. Residents have been angry and disappointed with LUMA Energy, a private company that took over management of the electric grid in June 2021, taking over from the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which was severely underfunded. While the average customer in Puerto Rico experiences slightly less power outages in a year under LUMA, they tend to be longer in duration than before. The congressionally-created Financial Oversight and Management Board oversees and approves Puerto Rico’s budget has cut funding across the public sector and was a part of privatizing the power grid. Activists claim this has made poverty worse and contributed to the power crisis and are working to eliminate the board.
Another serious challenge that made Hurricane Fiona even worse was that Puerto Rico still has not received all of the billions of dollars of federal aid bookmarked for the island after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections (only presidential primaries)and have no voting representation in Congress, leaving residents with much less political clout than the 50 states. However, House Democrats introduced a bill this year that would give Puerto Rico residents a self-determination vote including the potential for statehood or independence. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting congressional representative is pro-statehood and believes that Puerto Rico becoming a state will help “normalize” the economy by receiving better resources and decreasing poverty. Governor Pierluisi also supports this vote, stating “‘It is time to end colonialism within America. It is time to end the territorial relationship of Puerto Rico with the United States.’”
As climate change brings an increase in extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, Puerto Rico will need to be better prepared to handle more, and more intense, storms. There needs to be significant federal aid sent before the next hurricane season to the island to strengthen its infrastructure to become more resilient. López Varona, Puerto Rican political activist, has a home solar panel system that he said performed well during the hurricane, unlike those who depended on LUMA. Renewable energy advocates are pushing for more rooftop solar to make people less vulnerable to power outages and want FEMA to use the $9.5 billion allocated for reconstruction of the power grid for rooftop solar installations for those who cannot afford the upfront cost.
Hurricane Fiona was not the first hurricane to hit Puerto Rico and it sure won’t be the last. Puerto Rican residents deserve timely federal aid and a well-functioning electric grid. The United States government needs to do everything it can to help prepare them for the next storm.
Written by Sarah Woodams ‘24(T5)