More than a week after Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico, damage from the Category 1 storm lingers across the island: About 40 percent of residents are still without power and 212,000 don’t have access to clean running water. According to official reports, 26 hospitals have yet to come back online.
While the island struggles to recover, Fiona has moved on, hitting the Dominican Republic and colliding with Canada’s Eastern Seaboard on Saturday, leaving hundreds of thousands without power in Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, parts of the Caribbean and Florida are bracing for Hurricane Ian, which is expected to build to a Category 4 hurricane by Tuesday.
The level of devastation wrought by Fiona in Puerto Rico, and the slow recovery in the days since, have fueled local anger towards the government, which many say mismanaged recovery funds after Hurricane Maria knocked out the island’s electric grid and other critical infrastructure in 2017.
“We’re questioning why it’s taking so long,” said Ruth Santiago, a community and environmental lawyer based in Salinas, one of the worst-hit areas in the south of the island. “This was a Category 1 hurricane that did not hit us directly, except for a little bit in the southwest.” By comparison, Hurricane Maria was nearly a Category 5 and hit the island straight on.
A centerpoint of public ire has been LUMA Energy, the private company that took over Puerto Rico’s power transmission system last year. Previously, the country had been serviced by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, a corruption-plagued public utility that went bankrupt months before Hurricane Maria. During the debt restructuring process, PREPA contracted with LUMA, a joint venture between American and Canadian companies, to transmit and distribute power. But like PREPA before it, the private utility’s tenure was riddled with mismanagement of the grid, delaying recovery from Maria and leaving the island vulnerable to Fiona.
“I define a storm in many ways,” said Tara Rodríguez Besosa, co-founder of El Departamento de la Comida, a grassroots farming collective that works towards food sovereignty in Puerto Rico. “Fiona is a storm, and the privatization of the electric grid is a storm as well.”
Over the last several months, increasing blackouts, voltage fluctuations, and rising energy prices have led to mass protests against the private utility. Even celebrity musician Bad Bunny has repeatedly spoken out against the company.
Many viewed the LUMA takeover as part of a long trend of privatization that has hampered Puerto Rican public services and decreased democratic control, a dynamic stemming from the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, officially a U.S territory.
“Right now, people are focusing on the immediate emergency, but I would not be surprised to see a big resurgence of protests against LUMA,” said Carlos Berríos Polanco, a Puerto Rican journalist currently based in Ponce who covered the demonstrations in July and August. Already he has documented at least six protests that occurred over the weekend or are planned for this week. In an effort to avert further LUMA-driven delays, town mayors across the island have been hiring their own electric brigades, often comprised of ex-PREPA workers. In some of these cases LUMA has called the police and threatened mayors with arrest.
The company’s contract is up for renewal on November 15, a deal that would lock in the utility for another 15 years; officials are now re-examining the partnership.
According to Santiago, Puerto Ricans are wondering why LUMA and PREPA have not implemented renewable energy with the historic amount of disaster funding they had at their disposal from Hurricane Maria. The country received $9 billion for electric grid reconstruction from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, but only $40 million has been spent. After damaged ports prevented imports of fossil fuels from reaching the island, energy experts and climate activists advocated for investment in locally-generated solar and wind. But the government continued to push for fossil fuel infrastructure and as of March was generating less than 5 percent of its electricity from renewables, even with a law in place to achieve 40 percent renewable energy by 2026 and 100 percent by 2050.
Beyond a transition to renewables, experts and activists have called for a decentralization of the grid. Power plants along the southern coast in Puerto Rico generate around 70 percent of the country’s energy, but the majority of demand is in the north. When storms come through running east to west, they knock out the power lines that run across the island. Santiago, who sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, said that government initiatives to build large solar farms on agricultural lands have been misguided; they maintain the centralized pattern of energy generation, damage biodiverse habitats, and take up valuable agricultural land.
In the southern community of Coquí, residents have attributed record flood levels during Fiona to soil compaction from two utility-scale solar projects on nearby agricultural land zoned as specially protected soil. Indeed, the environmental impact report for the most recent project predicted changes to water flows in the area. Instead of large-scale solar farms, energy activists have called on the government to support smaller grids and more rooftop solar to create a more decentralized energy supply. Studies have shown it would be possible to cover almost all the electricity needs for the island with rooftop solar alone.
Puerto Ricans with the resources to install rooftop solar after Hurricane Maria fared well during this most recent storm. The country underwent something of a grassroots solar revolution following Maria, with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis reporting last week that over 40,000 Puerto Rican homes have installed solar panels since 2017 (most of these are hooked up to battery backup systems). The non-profit Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, a town in the mountains in central Puerto Rico, led an effort to develop a community-scale solar initiative, installing systems in over 100 homes and 30 businesses and opening its doors to those without power.
Just as with energy independence, a grassroots movement to establish food sovereignty through community farms sprung up in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico imports approximately 85 percent of its food supply, leaving residents vulnerable to food insecurity in the event of shipping disruptions and damaged ports. Hurricane Fiona severely damaged farms across the island, wiping out 90 percent of the eastern region’s plantain crop, as well as small farms that prioritized crop diversification after Maria. As reported in the Washington Post, many of these smaller farms will not qualify for crop insurance. Damages to domestic crops may also mean higher food prices for Puerto Ricans in the coming months.
Marissa Reyes-Díaz, who co-founded Güakiá Colectivo Agroecológico, a farm in Dorado, in the north of Puerto Rico near San Juan, said community farmers are scrambling to harvest what they can and distribute food.
“The government has not prioritized small farms, but we are doing our best without structural support,” said Reyes-Díaz, who also emphasized the connection between energy independence and food sovereignty. “It remains to be seen in the coming weeks what the situation will be.”
According to Berríos Polanco, many grocery stores across the island have also had to close due to lack of diesel to run their generators. Currently, a British petroleum ship with 300,000 barrels of diesel is waiting for a Jones Act waiver to land off the southern coast of Puerto Rico; because of the Jones Act, foreign ships coming from U.S. ports cannot dock without a waiver and the act has been criticized for increasing energy costs for Puerto Rico over the years.
On Thursday, President Biden promised to cover 100 percent of recovery costs from Hurricane Fiona for a period of 30 days; FEMA has been adding municipalities to the list to receive aid as information becomes available, although certain hard-hit counties in the south and west have yet to be included in the disaster declaration.
“We know each year these things are going to continue to happen,” said Rodríguez Besosa, who is taking steps to make sure her farm can operate as off the grid as possible. She added, “It’s interesting that the same entities meant to support us are the ones that have created the largest destruction and obstacles.”