To survive more frequent hurricanes, Puerto Rico needs to rethink preparedness

In the midst of an active hurricane season, Puerto Rico has suffered again. Thanks to Fiona, who crashed into the territory a few days before Ian arrived in Florida, we were left without critical services like power, water, hospitals, and fuel supplies. Fiona’s destruction was a stark reminder of the deadly effects of Hurricane Maria, which caused $90 billion in damage five years ago. More than 30 people died from Fiona and as we recover from another destructive hurricane, our leaders have ignored the planning and preparation lessons made clear by Maria.

After Maria, the US federal and Puerto Rico local governments promised a higher level of resilience by strengthening existing infrastructures following the usual central planning approach and solutions. But Hurricane Fiona has been yet another reminder that our strategy for building resilience in Puerto Rico is wrong and that the leaders who adopt it are making decisions based on a philosophy that focuses on the wrong things. They are rebuilding power grids and water, sanitation, and other 20th-century infrastructure as they were before Maria’s coup; This won’t work. Private companies cannot be trusted to provide resilient infrastructure. Rethinking how we approach planning and preparation will make the archipelago a more viable place that benefits Puerto Ricans without straining budgets.

Puerto Rico need not be a continuing site of unmitigated disaster and devastation, however, as the climate crisis threatens more intense storms and hurricanes, it will be if government at all levels does not begin to respond differently. As an environmental engineer and lawyer, respectively, we have found that an organized response based on community and civil society solutions, or what is called a distributed/local response, would have been a better option. Based on our decades of work on environmental, social, and energy justice projects, we have seen the effects of local engagement in building resilience in our communities. Therefore, preparing for the next hurricane will require community involvement and leadership. If leaders at all levels had planned with locals for disaster response, we believe Fiona’s damage would have been less severe.

A local/distributed response is being studied in Puerto Rico and has so far shown promise as an effective and resilient alternative. For example, residents and businesses in Puerto Rico are adopting rooftop solar and battery storage as a local resiliency solution, primarily through grants from nonprofit organizations and individual investments. The federal and local governments could have instituted smaller-scale projects to store electricity in the event of a blackout. Instead, they continued to support large-scale solar projects with little or no citizen participation.

The problems that plagued Puerto Rico after Fiona actually began before the hurricane made landfall. The islands’ electricity is privately operated by Luma Energy, which failed to properly maintain vegetation near power lines and failed to maintain key grid components such as substations. There was inadequate government oversight to see if Luma was maintaining the system properly; Promises made by politicians that a privatized grid operation would be better than a utility company have not been kept. When Fiona’s winds, not yet a hurricane, reached our shores, they were enough to cause a complete blackout resulting from damage from trees and other debris, as well as failures of key power lines.

To put this in perspective, it took Luma longer to restore power to 90 percent of its customers in Puerto Rico than it did Florida Power & Light to restore power after Ian, a Category 4 hurricane. Even with billions of dollars approved for energy resiliency programs after Hurricane Maria, electrical infrastructure remains so weak that a tropical storm that became a Category 1 hurricane caused a total blackout.

The lack of electricity extended outside. Many of the emergency generators installed by the government water company before Hurricane Fiona did not work for unknown reasons. So no power, and later no backup power, meant no drinking water because water treatment and purification facilities rely on electricity to function. Additionally, fuel distribution logistics did not change after Maria, resulting in a shortage of diesel fuel. Surprisingly, even hospitals had a hard time getting diesel for their emergency generators. Predictably, the death toll rose, urgent medical care such as surgeries were cancelled, food spoiled, the economy ground to a halt, and Puerto Rico quickly became uninhabitable again.

During and after Hurricane Fiona, homes and businesses that were equipped with rooftop solar and battery energy storage systems were able to continue operating. In Puerto Rico, there is much of what social scientists call social acceptance (widespread support) for rooftop solar, but individuals and businesses cannot transform the entire power grid without government support. Federal and territorial governments must heed calls from civil society to prioritize distributed renewable energy projects with disaster recovery funds. If we strive to serve communities, especially the most vulnerable, they must be the main actors in the identification, design, implementation, evaluation and maintenance of distributed/local processes and solutions to address resilience challenges.

The challenge of resilience to the climate crisis does not have a single solution. There is no one discipline or approach that can encompass everything. However, in Puerto Rico and other hurricane-prone regions, there is strong evidence that grassroots initiatives and community approaches are effective in building resilience. The approximately $10 billion in funds allocated for disaster recovery related to Hurricanes Maria and Fiona should go toward decentralizing critical services and implementing community-driven alternatives.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the opinions expressed by the author(s) are not necessarily those of American scientist.

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