Why hurricanes are a disaster for Puerto Rico

Why hurricanes are a disaster for Puerto Rico

By Carlos A. Suárez Carrasquillo and Fernando Tormos-Aponte

Five years after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona killed at least four people, caused widespread flooding and left hundreds of thousands of residents without water or power. Maria caused major damage to Puerto Rico’s power grid in 2017, leaving many residents without electricity for months. Reconstruction has been hampered by technical, political and financial challenges.

Carlos A. Suárez and Fernando Tormos-Aponte are social scientists who study Latin American politics and environmental justice. They explain some of the factors that hampered efforts to recover from Maria and prepare for subsequent storms on this island with a population of 3.2 million people.

Failed Promises of Privatization

Carlos A. Suárez Carrasquillo, Instructional Associate Professor, Political Science, Center for Latin American Studies, University of Florida

In less than a century, Puerto Rico’s electrical system has fully cycled from private electricity supply to a state-led effort to democratize access to energy, and then back to a public-private partnership with a strong neoliberal ethos. However, Puerto Ricans still face daily challenges to obtain affordable and efficient electricity services.

When the island’s electrical power system was created in the late 1800s, private companies initially produced and sold electricity. During the New Deal era in the 1930s, the government took on this role. People came to see electricity as a patrimonyor birthright, which the government would provide, sometimes subsidizing power to low-income residents.

In the 1940s, Puerto Rico launched Operation Bootstrap, a rapid industrialization program that sought to attract foreign investment in industries such as textiles and petrochemicals. An important element was reliable and cheap electricity, provided by the state through the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, a public company known in English as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA.

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Many interests rallied around PREPA, including elected representatives, unions, national oil importers and, most importantly, the Puerto Rican public. Employers and party politics have often influenced the company’s hiring, hiring, and financial decisions.

PREPA took on significant debt, often at the request of elected officials. For example, in 2011, then-Chairman Jennifer González legislated for the company to obtain a line of credit from Banco Governmental de Fomento to reduce energy bills ahead of the 2012 elections.

The Gov. Alejandro García Padilla and the Board of Directors and Financial Oversight of Puerto Rico imposed austerity policies in 2012-2017 that subsequent governors kept in place. This left PREPA with limited resources to prepare for Hurricane Maria or make repairs afterwards.

Juan Antonio Molina drives his old jeep down a road flooded in Toa Alta by Hurricane Fiona.

Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via Getty

In 2021, the government of Puerto Rico and the board of financial control privatized the energy supply on the island. PREPA continued to generate electricity, but LUMA Energy, an American-Canadian consortium, was awarded a 15-year contract to transmit and supply energy to customers.

LUMA is at the center of many controversies. It resisted recognizing Puerto Rico’s largest and most powerful union as the exclusive representative of its employees. The monthly electricity bills of many consumers have increased significantly. LUMA was supposed to upgrade Puerto Rico’s network with billions of dollars in federal support, but outages continued. Critics called the company secretive and corrupt.

Labor groups, environmentalists and academics have offered sweeping alternatives such as Quero Sol, a proposal to install distributed solar energy across the island to reduce Puerto Rico’s dependence on fossil fuels and what they see as incompetent private management.

But the changes needed to deal with Puerto Rico’s energy crisis are inherently political. Enacting them will require the support of the federal fiscal oversight board and Puerto Rican politicians. I believe that the public will have to mobilize and mobilize to convince the authorities that the PREPA of yesteryear and the LUMA of today are antiquated organizations that cannot meet the current needs of Puerto Ricans.

View of Highway 824 in Toa Alta, damaged by flooding caused by Hurricane Fiona.

Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via Getty

Who gets disaster aid?

Fernando Tormos-Aponte, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh

Disaster relief was slow to arrive in Puerto Rico. Five years after Hurricane Maria, the US government is channeling funds to rebuild and strengthen the archipelago’s energy infrastructure. But only a few of the planned multi-million projects were partially approved.

In addition to the privatization of the energy system, residents also faced bureaucratic obstacles and the use of disaster resources for political gain.

Damage assessments after Maria were rough estimates because the storm was so destructive. The US government has estimated the total damage to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands at $90 billion.

Now, Hurricane Fiona has done more damage, which will require even more significant investments. No government authority has sufficient resources in Puerto Rico to carry out such an assessment, let alone react quickly to the disaster.

Local elected officials are often eager to claim responsibility for securing funding. However, investments in disaster preparedness, such as improving the power grid, have less of an impact on the public perception of government performance than recovery funds that are disbursed soon after a disaster has occurred.

I hope the Biden administration will seek to respond more quickly and substantively to Hurricane Fiona than the Trump administration did after Hurricane Maria — but not necessarily out of compassion.

Presidents tend to use disaster resources to gain electoral advantage, reward supporters, and present themselves as capable disaster managers. And they are typically more vulnerable in election years.

Samuel Santiago removes mud from the front of his home in the San Jose neighborhood of Toa Baja.

Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via Getty

Maria hit Puerto Rico during Donald Trump’s first year in office. Puerto Rican voters lean toward Democrats when they move to the American mainland — as a community, the archipelago does not give electoral votes — so Trump likely didn’t consider Puerto Ricans as important to his election. The Trump administration has engaged in deliberate efforts to delay the disbursement of Hurricane Maria recovery aid and has denied the real price of the disaster.

In contrast, Joe Biden relied more heavily on minority support for his 2020 presidential victory, and Hurricane Fiona hit just two months before the 2022 midterm elections. able disasters and attract votes.

Even though Biden’s administration is more organized and more responsive, however, marginalized communities are often hampered by administrative burdens when trying to access government resources.

For example, I interviewed mayors in Puerto Rico who issued contracts to local suppliers to meet urgent needs after the Federal Emergency Management Agency promised reimbursement. To date, FEMA has not paid some of these mayors, and mayors fear that local suppliers will not want to do more business with their governments.

Identifying and applying for US government grants is a complex and tedious process that requires training. Access to such training is uneven and language barriers often prevent communities from seeking grants.

After Hurricane Maria, few Puerto Rican communities had the resources and support needed to address these barriers. In my opinion, governments must prioritize marginalized communities in their response to Hurricane Fiona to avoid reproducing the inequalities that marked the recovery from Hurricane Maria. Elected officials must demand transparency and accountability from those charged with delivering aid, while holding to the same standards.

Source : www.thedailybeast.com

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