Nearly five years to the day after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Fiona has devastated the island as a Category 1 storm. The category system accounts for wind speed, which means the damage wrought from torrential rain and flooding is untold. Hurricane Fiona inundated Puerto Rico but even before it made its way to the territory’s shores, residents struggled with mass power outages. Fiona only made those outages worse.
Mere weeks before Hurricane Fiona had even formed, protesters rallied against the current power grid operator, LUMA. Hundreds took to the streets of San Juan calling for LUMA’s 15-year contract to be revoked after a series of devastating power outages, including one in April that saw schools shutter and the Mayagüez Medical Center grapple with generator issues. The prior grid operator, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), was public but privatizing via LUMA has fared even worse while also charging unprecedentedly high rates for a critical service that’s unreliable at best.
Failing infrastructure, corruption that has PREPA scheduled to appear before a judge on Wednesday to finally restructure its debt, corruption on the side of LUMA, and an unwillingness to embrace renewables over fossil fuels has put Puerto Rico in an awful position. It’s sadly a case study of environmental racism, which Amigos del Rio Guaynabo President and former Puerto Rico Senate candidate Myrna Conty highlighted in a recent statement.
“Once again our archipelago suffers an environmental injustice due to climate events,” Conty said in a statement. “It is unbelievable that after five years, on the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was hit again by another storm, causing another humanitarian crisis. I hold the bureaucracy and lack of quick response of Puerto Rico’s government, Junta Control Fiscal, FEMA and HUD accountable for not using the funds approved for the recovery of Puerto Rico soon enough to mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Since Hurricane María, it’s evident that Puerto Rico’s centralized energy system has failed us repeatedly, due to the vulnerability of its transmission and distribution system—from south to north, crossing many mountains."
Conty’s Amigos del Rio Guaynabo organization is one of many environmental groups calling for Queremos Sol, a 2018 plan that would put Puerto Rico on track for a renewable portfolio of 50% by 2035 while also building in accountability measures aimed at undoing the damages wrought by PREPA and LUMA. That includes an audit of PREPA’s multibillion-dollar debt and installing an independent auditor to handle past corruption. The plan would be decentralized, with rooftop solar and large-scale projects like massive storage facilities absolutely critical to its success. Already, reports have emerged that solar has been critical for homes facing blackouts in the wake of Fiona.
"It is urgent that the reconstruction of our vulnerable centralized energy system stop burning fossil fuels and use the sun as the resource we have on the island,” Conty said. “We have plenty of it.” Puerto Rico is also blessed with wind and hydropower—despite just 2.5% of energy coming from renewables. Renewables are clearly underutilized and Puerto Rico could set an example for the rest of the United States on what a just transition looks like.