What the Government Never Learned From Puerto Rico

Five years after Category 5 Hurricane María, Puerto Rico still wasn’t ready for the Category 1 Fiona. Why can’t federal and local governments be trusted to lead recovery?

San Juan, Puerto Rico—On Thursday, May 26, right before the start of hurricane season, Governor Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico announced that his administration was “at the next level” regarding preparations for hurricane season. “If we compare ourselves to how the government was before [Hurricane] María, this is something totally different from the point of view of the warehouses that we have, the basic necessities, the equipment, and the food that we have,” he assured the populace. “And in the same agencies, [progress] is noticeable because what we do is make sure that we are improving.” But Pierluisi’s words rang hollow in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, which hit Puerto Rico on September 18. The government bungled its response, creating a crisis that is hurting the economy and killing people.

Even before Fiona, a Category 1 hurricane, touched land, the archipelago of Puerto Rico went dark. Some 1.5 million residents have lost electricity, and after more than a week, near 20 percent of households are still without power—mainly in the San Juan metropolitan area, which was not hit nearly as hard as the southern and western parts of the island. Many of those locales remain totally powerless.

The estimated cost of just repairing the streets is $35.3 million, and there were refrigerators full of food that had to be thrown out of homes, restaurants, and supermarkets. Economic damage to restaurants and their employees will be extreme.

Currently, hospitals and supermarkets throughout the island are running on generators, and the latter are closing because of a lack of diesel fuel. A ship carrying a supply of diesel was stuck in the water in the south of the island awaiting federal government approval to dock for four days, because the Jones Act prevents foreign vessels from entering Puerto Rico, even when delivering necessary supplies during an emergency. A temporary waiver was finally granted on September 28, which will hopefully get things moving quickly.

The lack of energy for people with chronic health conditions has caused 21 deaths so far, and the island could see more in coming days and weeks, according to Carlos Díaz Vélez, president of the College of Surgeons, who recently told Puerto Rico’s local newspaper El Nuevo Día: “I have no doubt that they will increase, that they will continue to increase in the coming days, because it is to be expected with the poor electrical service.” In acts of desperation, nine mayors have activated their own municipal brigades in an attempt to restore their towns’ electricity reserves.

Hurricane María, the Category 5 storm that in September of 2017, damaged 92 percent of Puerto Rico’s homes and led to an estimated 4,645 deaths. Following the disaster, the Trump administration delayed the delivery of more than $20 billion in hurricane relief to the island, and the efforts to deliver funding were unnecessarily delayed by bureaucratic obstacles, such as staffing shortages during the 2018–2019 government shutdown, and six levels of approval required for the support of a reconstruction project. Since María, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has allocated about $13.2 billion to fix the electrical grid. Over the last five years, only $40 million has actually been disbursed.

The catastrophe that Puerto Rico is experiencing wasn’t just caused by the nearly 25 inches of rain that Fiona dropped, it is also a result of unfinished or unstarted construction projects spearheaded by the local government. High levels of precipitation has always inundated areas like Salinas, but it had never before been affected by flooding, according to reporting in Centro de Periodismo Investigativo. The clearing of coastal mangroves for construction projects altered the flow of water runoff and made the flooding much worse.

This lack of preparedness and misuse of funding by both federal and local governments has put the people of Puerto Rico in danger. In Guaynabo, 12 families were recently removed from a large walk-up condominium complex in the Parkville area, following a landslide. The government has spent five years and billions of dollars to prepare the archipelago for the next storm, but local politicians showed little will to ensure the work was done. Now people are lining up at gas stations for fuel and driving from Ponce to San Juan to get money from ATMs.

Much of what we are seeing here is the collapse of a deteriorating system: years of flailing permits, delayed contracts, and disagreements between government bureaus. Though both the local and federal government do not want to acknowledge these failures, the people of Puerto Rico have woken up to them. Protection from this environmental damage should transcend all party lines.