In the midst of an active hurricane season, Puerto Rico has been hit again. Thanks to Fiona crashing into the area a few days before Ian hit Florida, we were without critical services like electricity, water, hospitals and fuel supplies. Fiona’s destruction was a stark reminder of the life-threatening effects of Hurricane Maria, which caused $90 billion in damage five years ago. More than 30 people died because of Fiona, and as we recover from another devastating hurricane, our leaders have ignored the lessons of planning and preparedness that Maria taught.
After Maria, the US federal government and the local government of Puerto Rico pledged an increased level of resilience by strengthening existing infrastructures, following a business-as-usual approach and central planning solutions. But Hurricane Fiona was yet another reminder that our strategy for building resilience in Puerto Rico is wrong, and that the leaders who support it are making decisions based on a philosophy that focuses on the wrong things. They are restoring 20th-century electrical grids, water supply, sewers and other infrastructure to the way they were before Maria struck; this won’t work. Private companies cannot be relied upon to provide sustainable infrastructures. Rethinking the way we approach planning and preparedness will make the archipelago a more livable place that benefits Puerto Ricans without straining budgets.
Puerto Rico does not need to be a continuous site of unlimited disaster and devastation, but as the climate crisis threatens more intense storms and hurricanes, it will unless government at all levels begins to respond differently. As an engineer and an environmental 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 be a better choice. Based on our decades of work on environmental, social and energy projects, we have seen the effects of local engagement on building resilience in our communities. Thus, preparing for the next hurricane will require community participation and leadership. If leaders at all levels had planned with local residents for disaster response, we believe the damage from Fiona would have been less severe.
A distributed/local response is being explored in Puerto Rico and so far has shown promise as an effective and sustainable alternative. For example, residents and businesses in Puerto Rico are embracing rooftop solar and battery energy storage as a local sustainability solution, mostly through grants from non-profit organizations and individual investments. Federal and local governments could introduce such smaller projects to store electricity in the event of an outage. Instead, they continued to support large-scale solar projects with little or no citizen input.
The problems that plagued Puerto Rico after Fiona actually began before the hurricane made landfall. Electricity on the islands is privately operated by Luma Energywhich is not maintained properly vegetation near power lines and failed to maintain key network components such as substations. There was inadequate state supervision to see if Luma supports the system properly; promises made by politicians that a privatized network operation would be better than a public enterprise did not hold up. When Fiona’s winds, not yet a hurricane, reached our shores, they were strong enough to cause total outages with damage from trees and other debris, as well as damage to key power lines.
To put this into perspective, Luma took longer to restore power to 90 percent of its customers in Puerto Rico than it took Florida Power & Light to restore power after Ian, a Category 4 hurricane. Even with billions of dollars approved for energy resilience programs after Hurricane Maria, the electrical infrastructure is still so weak that a tropical storm that became a Category 1 hurricane caused a complete blackout.
The lack of electricity appeared outside. Many of the emergency generators put in place by the government’s water company before Hurricane Fiona did not work for unknown reasons. So, no power, and then no backup power, meant no potable water, since water treatment and purification facilities rely on electricity to function. In addition, the logistics of fuel distribution did not change after Maria, resulting in a shortage of diesel fuel. Amazingly, even hospitals had difficulty getting diesel for their emergency generators. Not surprisingly, the death toll increased, emergency medical care such as surgeries were canceled, food spoiled, the economy ground to a halt, and Puerto Rico quickly became an unlivable place again.
During and after Hurricane Fiona, households and businesses that were equipped with rooftop solar and battery energy storage systems were able to continue operating. Puerto Rico has a lot of what social scientists call social acceptance — widespread support — for rooftop solar, but people and businesses can’t transform the entire electric 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 seek to serve communities, especially the most vulnerable, they must be the main actors in identifying, designing, implementing, evaluating and maintaining processes and distributed/local solutions to address sustainability challenges.
The climate crisis resilience challenge does not have a single solution. There is no one discipline or approach that can cover everything. However, in Puerto Rico and other hurricane-prone regions, there is strong evidence that grassroots initiatives and community-based approaches are effective in building resilience. An estimated $10 billion in disaster recovery funding from hurricanes Maria and Fiona should go towards decentralizing critical services and implementing community-led alternatives.
This is an opinion and analysis article and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.