Puerto Rico's Recovery Continues to Be Slow Due to Negligence and Poor Infrastructure

Nearly eight months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still plagued with issues related to its power. Of course, we know that much of this is related to the condition of the electric grid before the storm. Still, a major reason why parts of the island remain in darkness today is because of the trifecta of major storms, negligence on the part of government officials and an aging grid that has been long in need of repair.

The New York Times reports that there is evidence that if the power grid in Puerto Rico is irreparable, it is, in many ways, because of human error.

[An] examination of the power grid’s reconstruction — based on a review of hundreds of documents and interviews with dozens of public officials, utility experts and citizens across the island — shows how a series of decisions by federal and Puerto Rican authorities together sent the effort reeling on a course that would take months to correct. The human and economic damage wrought by all that time without power may be irreparable.

Though it became clear before Maria made landfall that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime storm, the island was unprepared for the impact and continued to struggle with decision making long after it occurred. The Times reporting focuses on how the Puerto Rican Power Authority (PREPA) not only failed to request help from other power utilities on the mainland that have generally been contracted to assist with disasters around the country for decades, they also hired Whitefish Energy to handle repair and reconstruction, which turned out to be a disaster.

But it gets worse. FEMA, apparently, was also thoroughly unprepared to handle the recovery.

At the same time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency made a highly unusual decision of its own. Rather than advise Puerto Rico to accept aid from the mainland utilities, FEMA abruptly called in the Army Corps of Engineers — never mind that the corps had never rebuilt a major grid after a storm and by its own account had not made preparations to take on the task in Puerto Rico.

The result was a chaotic tangle of overlapping missions and fumbling coordination.

But nothing about this disaster can be discussed without understanding that the economy and state of the island was in disarray long before the 2017 hurricane season. In other words, a decade of steady economic decline and steady migration off the island has meant that funding for the most basic of services, like power, has gone ignored. To be clear, it’s not that money hasn’t been coming to the island. There are steady streams of tourism and business that have contributed to the economy. Yet, PREPA remains bankrupt, people still face economic uncertainty and joblessness and the government struggles with massive, crippling debt that the U.S. government is unwilling to forgive.

Compounding those problems, the grid was decrepit, corroded and poorly maintained, and PREPA — which, like Puerto Rico as a whole, is effectively bankrupt — had failed to keep sufficient stocks of replacement parts and other critical supplies. Shipments of parts from the mainland were slow to arrive and languished in the battered ports. The terrain is so forbidding that replacing a single power pole can require a helicopter and a team of line workers. The effort seemed to go impossibly awry.

“I’ve never seen anything like that — not in a developed nation,” said Ed Muller, a former energy executive whose generation and transmission equipment suffered flooding by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, severe storm damage in Jamaica and earthquakes in California. In the Caribbean, he said, “hurricanes come through regularly, and have forever. You move people in and you get it done. And we haven’t done it.”

Much of the island has had power restored at this point but the situation remains precarious. Mistakes by PREPA have resulted in continued blackouts and workers are still continuing to make mistakes that set progress back. Puerto Ricans are resilient and determined to move forward. But with the next hurricane season less than a month away along with an electrical grid still in tatters, it is certain that the islands residents will continue to face difficulty in the months, and even years, ahead. 

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