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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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One Million Puerto Ricans Still Without Power As Grid Crisis Persists

  • Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, leading to the largest and longest blackout in U.S. history.
  • Now, another hurricane has left the island without power despite over $12 billion in federal government funding.
  • Many Puerto Rican residents are demanding change, citing sluggish bureaucracy, poor management, and underinvestment as the reason their grid remains so fragile.

As Hurricane Fiona continues its path of destruction through the pacific, moving toward Bermuda as a Category 4 storm after lashing Turks and Caicos as a Category 3 storm, the flood waters in Puerto Rico are just starting to recede. As the storm quiets on the island,  the full measure of the storm’s significant damage is being revealed in the United States island territory. Almost five years to the day after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, killing 2,975 people on the island and leaving huge swaths of the population without energy for months in the United States’ largest and longest blackout in history, this fallout from Hurricane Fiona is feeling eerily familiar. 

Hurricane Fiona has wiped out the majority of Puerto Rico’s power – again – sparking outrage at local utilities and grid managers who were supposed to have made the energy grid resilient to such storms in the five years since Hurricane Maria showcased the vulnerabilities of Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure. Despite the certainty that another hurricane would inevitably come barreling through sooner rather than later, Puerto Rico was just barely starting to rebuild their fragile grid when it was taken out by Fiona. Puerto Rico is situated in the heart of Hurricane Alley, a stretch of warm water spanning from Africa to Central America and the Gulf Coast, creating perfect conditions for the formation of hurricanes – conditions which will continue producing increasingly strong and frequent storms as the water grows warmer from climate change.

Because of the enormity, inevitability, and increasing intensity of the issue, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has thrown lots – and I mean LOTS – of money toward building back better Puerto Rico’s grid. In fact, the approximately $12 billion that the federal government has given to Puerto Rico over various rounds of projects for this initiative represents the “largest allocation of FEMA funds in the agency’s history.” So why was the island so unprepared for this week’s Hurricane Fiona?

At one point on September 19, the entire island was completely without power, and as of Wednesday morning over a million still had not had their electricity restored. And constituents as well as politicians are pissed. Many Puerto Rican residents are demanding – and have been demanding for over a year – that the government cut tires with the private contractor LUMA Energy that has been tasked with Puerto Rico’s energy transmission and distribution since last June. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is blaming both LUMA and the Puerto Rican officials. “Instead of making it a resilient grid, a locally based grid, they’re busy fighting with each other,” Schumer said at a Hispanic Federation event on Tuesday in D.C.

Since LUMA has been put in charge of the grid in Puerto Rico, high energy prices and blackouts have become commonplace, creating major unrest among Puerto Rican residents and the local government. “Friction pitting the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and private LUMA Energy versus the territory’s Energy Bureau have hamstrung efforts to use billions of federal dollars to recover from Hurricane Maria in 2017,” Politico explained in a report on Tuesday. 

Now, in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, the Biden Administration has pledged to give even more money to help the storm-lash island’s recovery. But clearly, some very basic restructuring and reallocation of both funds and responsibility needs to take place to avoid a repeat of the post-Maria debacle. The United States Department of Energy (DOE) released its Puerto Rico 100% Renewable Energy and Resilience Study just earlier this year, which maps out a more hurricane-resilient and climate-friendly energy sector by 2050. But the next major hurricane will happen much, much sooner than that. As Vox reported Wednesday, in spite of the DOE’s best efforts and FEMA’s funds, “the same hurdles that left the grid in a fragile state still remain: sluggish bureaucracy, poor management, underinvestment, and the inherent difficulty of delivering power on an island.”

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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