Hurricane exposes fragility of Puerto Rico’s energy grid despite large-scale investments

Days after Hurricane Fiona swept across Puerto Rico, people there are still dealing with intense heat, a water shortage and a difficult history that has left the territory short on power and crucial needs. Yarimar Bonilla, the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, joined William Brangham to discuss the recovery.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Days after Hurricane Fiona swept across Puerto Rico, Americans there are dealing with intense heat, a water shortage and a difficult history that has left the territory short on electrical power and crucial needs.

    William Brangham has our coverage.

  • William Brangham:

    They have spent hours lining up for gas and waiting for drinking water driven in by the truckload, all while an intense heat wave is bearing down on the island.

    Four days after Hurricane Fiona pummeled Puerto Rico, over 60 percent of the island is still without power. Gas, used to fire up people's generators, is one of the most urgent needs.

  • Sigfredo Acevedo Rivera, Puerto Rico Resident (through translator):

    First, I went to a bigger gas station, but we had bad luck. And the moment I finally arrived, they ran out of gas. So I had to line at another place and spent even more time since this morning.

  • William Brangham:

    Without those generators, those without electricity will have little relief from the heat.

    Depending where you are on the main island, residents are facing heat index warnings between 107 and 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat is believed to be a leading cause of climate-related deaths globally. One key prevention strategy is drinking lots of water. But thanks to the storm, more than half-a-million people are still without water on the island.

    Volunteers and government workers are delivering potable water in flatbed trucks and handing out food to those who need it.

  • Rafael Ramos, Puerto Rico Resident (through translator):

    We lost all our clothes, groceries, and everything in the wooden part of the house.

  • William Brangham:

    Earlier this week, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Deanne Criswell, toured the island. FEMA is pledging to do better this time after being widely criticized for its slow response to Hurricane Maria five years ago.

    And that outrage has continued. President Biden said today he too realizes the federal response must be different.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: We are with you. And we are not going to walk away. We mean it.

  • William Brangham:

    But Puerto Rico's governor says it will take days for power to be fully restored to the island.

    And these outages are driving renewed frustration and criticism of the private company, LUMA, that took over running the electrical grid in 2021. Earlier this year, protests erupted in the streets of San Juan over the constant blackouts people were experiencing. Puerto Rico's public power authority, known as PREPA, owns the grid, but it went bankrupt.

    This mixture of public and private control has left LUMA and PREPA blaming each other for the outages, which are tied not just to the storms, but to years of underinvestment and slow rebuilding, this while residents of the island continue to pay the price.

    For more on how Puerto Rico is trying to recover from this storm, I'm joined by Yarimar Bonilla. She's the director of the center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

    Yarimar, thank you so much for being here on the "NewsHour."

    Can you just give us a sense? I know you're in touch with a lot of people on the island. How are people doing right now?

  • Yarimar Bonilla, Hunter College:

    Well, you call Puerto Ricans after a storm and ask them how they're doing, and they will tell you, we're OK.

    But that just means we're not injured. Nothing fell on top of us. That could mean they don't have running water, they're bathing with a bucket, they don't have electricity. And they're frustrated and they're tired.

  • William Brangham:

    And it seems too that there's this sort of connected crises going on. There's just the damage from the storm, but that, as we reported, knocks out the power and the water, and then you get this incredible heat wave on top of that.

  • Yarimar Bonilla:

    In some ways, we have become the masters of resilience, but we're also really exhausted by that.

    And so I think folks always — in Puerto Rico, we will always try to be neighborly and have good cheer and have the best spirit. But people are worn down. There has also been increased austerity on the island, and with no real improvements to infrastructure.

    So this comes at a moment where Puerto Ricans were already tired of dealing with blackouts, and, to some extent, already had all their emergency plans. But I think its really grinding on people. And it's not as it — as what happened with Hurricane Maria. There was a certain kind of novelty and everyone was very understanding of the historic nature of the storm.

    But I think that, for a lot of folks, that kind of understanding has run out.

  • William Brangham:

    Can — help me explain something here, that, after Maria, which did such damage and took so many lives, there was this promise, an allocation of billions of dollars to try to help the island build back better, so to speak.

    And yet we saw Fiona come in as a relatively weaker storm and still do so much damage.

    How do you explain that?

  • Yarimar Bonilla:

    Well, that's the existential question.

    And I think that's what a lot of folks are asking, how — we had five years to prepare for this. That was a Category 1 storm. Why did we not do that?

    And so I think part of this has to do with the logic of recovery and of emergency management that hasn't adapted to the era of climate change. So it used to be that a historic storm wouldn't be surpassed for many years, but now the storms are coming faster. And so we need to adapt our recovery processes, which remain very much bound up in red tape.

    And so there's still a lot of folks who just hadn't even gotten through the bureaucracy of getting what they needed to recover from Maria. And the other problem is that, at times, these recovery logics, what they focus on is temporary solutions.

    So, perhaps we need to be rethinking of stopgap solutions and Band-Aids and really invest in the kind of transformative recovery that Puerto Rico and, honestly, the rest of the Caribbean needs, and — since they're at the forefront of climate change, and the storms are going to keep coming.

  • William Brangham:

    Specifically about the power grid, there was, again, an enormous amount of money and attention after Maria to try to build the grid that would stand up better.

    And yet we still saw, even before Fiona came, blackouts, protests, real dissatisfaction with that system. Why has that been such a sticking point?

  • Yarimar Bonilla:

    Well, we were promised that the grid was going to be privatized and that that was going to bring improvements, but it has not.

    It has brought increased prices, so constant price increases. And it has also brought more and longer blackouts. So a lot of Puerto Ricans are duly frustrated, because they're paying more, and Puerto Ricans have a higher energy burden than anywhere else in the United States. They spend 8 percent of their income on utilities, and they can't rely on those utilities.

  • William Brangham:

    How much of this do you think is tied up in Puerto Rico's sort of unusual relationship with the United States?

    It's a U.S. territory, and Puerto Ricans are all Americans, as we all know, but yet it doesn't have the same authority and autonomy that, say, a state would. How much of that is complicit in all of this?

  • Yarimar Bonilla:

    It's hard to say where that begins and ends, because it always feels present in every moment of interaction with the federal government.

    So when Puerto Rico gets the resources that it needs, a big show is made of the fact that they're getting the basic resources or assistance that they're just entitled to as U.S. citizens. But they don't always get those resources, right? And so the U.S. Civil Rights Commission recently received — released a report documenting how aid was distributed differently in Puerto Rico after Maria than it was in Texas and Florida after Harvey.

    So these differences have been documented. And we can only hope that the amount of scrutiny that was brought after Maria will help for things to run differently this time around.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Yarimar Bonilla of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, thank you so much for taking the time.

  • Yarimar Bonilla:

    You're welcome. Thank you.

Listen to this Segment