Recovery from Hurricane Fiona strikes at the heart of U.S.-Puerto Rico relations


Eugene Smotkin’s sabbatical was cut short over the weekend when he lost power to his home in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And Hurricane Fiona, which brought 80 mph winds, dropped 30 inches of rain on the island and caused intense and widespread flooding, hadn’t even arrived yet.

“Here, the blackout started even before the storm hit us,” says Smotkinprofessor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University.

Smotkin was not alone. The entire power grid has failed in Puerto Rico, leaving the island’s 3 million people without power. It wreaked havoc on antiquated infrastructure that still hasn’t been updated since 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the most destructive storm in the island’s history. Hurricane Maria claimed 3,000 lives, 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 within days of the blackout – but many other people are still without power.

“It is disconcerting that the whole island lost energy under wind speeds well below [Hurricane] Maria,” Smotkin says.

portrait of Laura Kuhl (left) and Amilcar Barreto (right)
Left to right: Northeastern Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and International Affairs Laura Kuhl and Amílcar Barreto, professor and director of the Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies program at Northeastern. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The problems that afflict Puerto Rico’s Aging Electricity Grid get past a storm. Recovery efforts are underway on the island, but according to Amilcar Barretoprofessor and holder of the Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies program at Northeastern, each hurricane sheds light on a much larger question facing the American land: 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 in what Barreto calls a “golden half century” for Puerto Rico. . From the eve of World War II to the Cold War, this period saw the United States focus on developing the island, using it as a “showcase of democracy”, during the Cold War.

One of the ways the federal government increased development in Puerto Rico was through Section 936 of the US tax code, which essentially provided corporations with tax benefits to operate on the island. This helped provide a wealth of job opportunities, but it ended in 1996 when the federal government instituted new legislation that phased out 936 corporation tax benefits over the next 10 years. The result has been 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 US state or territory to file for bankruptcy. Since Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state, the federal government responded by depriving it of its financial autonomy and creating a tax review board, appointed by the US government, to oversee all financial matters.

“The Puerto Rican government can’t do anything about money without getting approval from this review board,” Barreto said.

Faced with $70 billion in 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, says Barreto. In 2017, Hurricane Ira and Hurricane Maria, which hit the island weeks apart, toppled the house with high winds.

“First, there’s the matter of cleaning up so you can even move, but then, number two, where do you get the funds to rebuild that electrical infrastructure?” Barreto said. “The island needs to revamp the whole system – it’s very outdated – but they don’t have the funds to do that, and the tax review board won’t allow them to do that.”

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