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.
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.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided relief to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm, but was heavily criticized for his answer. Funds needed for longer-term recovery and larger-scale infrastructure repairs have also bogged down in Congress and been further hampered by Trump administration restrictions on aid to the island.
Although the Biden Administration began removing those restrictions and releasing some aid, post-Maria recovery efforts progressed slowly. As reported by New York Times, the Puerto Rican government spent only $5.3 billion of FEMA’s $28 billion in funding for recovery projects. And most of that spending has been on emergency recovery efforts, not fixing the island’s ailing power grid.
“There hasn’t been any investment to really build the resilience of the system to the level that you would need given what we’re going through right now. [with climate change],” said Laura KuhlNortheast Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and International Affairs.
It is a constant cycle of natural disasters, financial need, financial restrictions and bureaucratic quicksand that has kept the island in place.
“Puerto Rico’s energy investments since then have been [about] rebuilding what had been, at best, not moving forward,” Kuhl says.
After Maria, there were debates about how to rebuild Puerto Rico’s energy system, Kuhl says. There have even been conversations about using the funding to move the island from its centralized, fossil fuel-focused system to a more decentralized, renewable-energy-focused system. However, the transition from the state-run Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which has a debt of $ 9 billion, to the private company Luma Energy has dealt a decisive blow to a potentially new vision of energy in Porto. Rico.
However, there is some hope for the immediate recovery of Fiona Island. Biden announced a major disaster declaration on Wednesday, releasing additional federal aid, which will help with recovery efforts, particularly in devastated areas in the south and center of the island.
After Maria, FEMA had stocked up on food, water, and generators, and about 700 FEMA personnel were already on the island to help with Maria’s recovery efforts.
“It is still very early to say what the long-term impacts of Hurricane Fiona will be, although we know these will be long-lasting challenges, but I believe Puerto Rico is better prepared to handle these immediate needs after the storm. experience with Maria,” says Kuhl.
However, all of these factors – a struggling economy, an outdated electrical system, and natural disasters – have left a mark on Puerto Rico that extends beyond any disaster. In recent years, there has been a brain drain, with young college graduates moving to the United States, Barreto says. Nurses and teachers are more likely to find jobs in US cities like Miami, Chicago, and New York, where proficiency in bilingualism is advantageous.
“Not so long ago, if you lived on one of the islands of the Lesser Antilles, if you needed medical help, you would fly to Puerto Rico,” Barreto says. “Now it looks like Puerto Ricans, for the same help, should fly to Miami, New York or Washington, DC”
The “silent exodus” of young people reveals cracks in the facade of Puerto Rican identity, Barreto says. Her late father-in-law, a World War II veteran, was an ardent supporter of the Puerto Rican state who often said, “America is great because America is good.” After the elimination of 936, the ensuing economic crash, and FEMA’s failed response during Maria, many Puerto Ricans aren’t so sure Uncle Sam will come to the rescue.
“It’s like this low-pressure fog is hitting the island,” Barreto says. “It’s like people don’t know what to do because their whole identity is tied to federal government benevolence. … With each passing day, both collectively and individually, people begin to ask: ‘Do I stay or do I go?’ »