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Eugene Smotkin’s sabbatical was interrupted over the weekend when he lost power at his house in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And Hurricane Fiona, which brought 80 mph winds, dropped 30 inches of rain on the island and caused widespread, intense flooding, hadn’t even arrived yet.
“Here, the blackout began even before the storm hit us,” says Smotkin, a Northeastern University professor of chemistry and chemical biology.
Smotkin was not alone. The entire power grid went down in Puerto Rico, leaving the island’s 3 million residents without electricity. It wreaked havoc on antiquated infrastructure that has still not been updated since 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the most destructive storm in the island’s history. Hurricane Maria left 3,000 people dead–most of them after the initial storm as a nearly year-long power outage prolonged the impacts.
This time around, Smotkin was relatively lucky––his power was restored a few days after the outage–but many more people are still without power.
“It’s disconcerting that the entire island lost power under wind speeds that were much less than [Hurricane] Maria,” Smotkin says.
The problems plaguing Puerto Rico’s aging power grid go beyond one storm. Recovery efforts are underway on the island, but according to Amílcar Barreto, professor and chair of the cultures, societies and global studies program at Northeastern, each hurricane highlights a much bigger question facing the U.S. territory: the nature of its relationship with the United States.
After acquiring Puerto Rico by force from the Spanish in 1898, the U.S. government “didn’t care much” about the island, but that changed during what Barreto calls a “golden half century” for Puerto Rico. Lasting from the eve of World War II through the Cold War, this period saw the U.S. focusing on the island’s development, using it as a “showcase for democracy,” during the Cold War.
One way the federal government increased development in Puerto Rico was through Section 936 of the U.S. tax code, which essentially provided corporations with tax benefits for operating on the island. It helped provide a flurry of job opportunities, but that ended in 1996 when the federal government instituted new legislation that phased out 936’s corporate tax benefits over the next 10 years. The result was a slow but steady downward spiral for Puerto Rico’s economy.
In 2017, the government declared it could not pay its creditors and became the first U.S. state or territory to enter bankruptcy. Since Puerto Rico is a territory, not a state, the federal government responded by stripping it of its financial autonomy and establishing a fiscal review board, appointed by the U.S. government, to oversee all financial matters.
“The Puerto Rican government can do nothing with regards to money without getting the approval of this review board,” Barreto says.
Faced with a $70 billion debt, bankruptcy, no control over its own finances and an economy in a death spiral, Puerto Rico was a “house of cards” waiting to fall, Barreto says. In 2017, the one-two punch of Hurricane Ira and Hurricane Maria, which hit the island weeks apart, knocked the house down with gale force winds.
“Number one, there’s the issue of cleaning up so you can even move, but then, number two, where do you get the funds to rebuild that electrical infrastructure?” Barreto says. “The island needs to revamp the whole system–it’s very antiquated–but it doesn’t have the funds to do so, and the fiscal review board won’t allow it to do so.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided Puerto Rico with relief in the immediate aftermath of the storm but has been heavily criticized for its response. The funds necessary for longer-term recovery and larger-scale infrastructure repairs also got mired in Congress and were further hampered by the Trump administration’s restrictions on aid to the island.
Although the Biden administration has begun removing those restrictions and releasing some of the aid, post-Maria recovery efforts have moved slowly. As reported by the New York Times, the Puerto Rican government has spent only $5.3 billion of the $28 billion in FEMA funding on recovery projects. And most of that spending went toward emergency recovery efforts, not fixing the island’s ailing power grid.
“There have not been investments in really strengthening the resilience of the system to the level that you would need given what we’re now experiencing [with climate change],” says Laura Kuhl, Northeastern assistant professor of public policy and urban affairs and international affairs.
It’s a constant cycle of natural disasters, financial need, financial restriction and bureaucratic quicksand that has kept the island stuck in place.
“Investments in Puerto Rico’s energy since have been [about] rebuilding back to what had been, at best, not moving forward,” Kuhl says.
Post-Maria, there were debates about how to rebuild Puerto Rico’s energy system, Kuhl says. There were even conversations about using the funding to shift the island away from its centralized, fossil fuel-driven system and toward a more decentralized, renewably focused system. However, the transition from the state-run Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which is $9 billion in debt, to privately-run Luma Energy dealt a decisive blow to a potentially new vision for energy in Puerto Rico.
However, there is some hope for the island’s immediate recovery from Fiona. Biden announced a major disaster declaration on Wednesday, releasing additional federal assistance, which will help with recovery efforts, particularly in the devastated southern and central areas of the island.
Post-Maria, FEMA had stocked up on food, water and generators, and about 700 FEMA staff were on the island already helping with Maria recovery efforts.
“It’s still very early to tell what the long-term impacts of Hurricane Fiona will be, although we know they will be long-lasting challenges, but I do think Puerto Rico is better prepared for managing those immediate needs after the experience with Maria,” Kuhl says.
However, all these factors–a struggling economy, outdated power system and natural disasters–have left a mark on Puerto Rico, one that extends past any one disaster. In recent years, there has been a brain drain, with young, college educated people moving to the U.S., Barreto says. Nurses and teachers are more likely to find jobs in U.S. cities like Miami, Chicago and New York City where bilingual fluency is advantageous.
“There was a point not that long ago where if you lived on one of the islands in the Lesser Antilles if you needed medical help, you would fly to Puerto Rico,” Barreto says. “Now it would appear that Puerto Ricans, for the same help, would have to fly to Miami or New York or Washington, D.C.”
The “quiet exodus” of young people reveals cracks in the façade of Puerto Rican identity, Barreto says. His late stepfather, a veteran of World War II, was an ardent supporter of Puerto Rican statehood who often said, “America is great because America is good.” After the elimination of 936, the ensuing economic tailspin and FEMA’s failed response during Maria, many Puerto Ricans are not so sure Uncle Sam will come to the rescue.
“It’s like this fog of depression is hitting the island,” Barreto says. “It’s as if people didn’t know what to do because their whole identities were wrapped up in the beneficence of the federal government. … Every day that goes by, both collectively and individually, people start asking, ‘Do I stay, or do I leave?’”
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