Hurricane Fiona exacerbates Puerto Rico’s electricity crisis

Hurricane+Fiona+hit+the+Caribbean+as+a+category+one+tropical+storm+on+Sept.+18.

Photo: Hailey Akau

Hurricane Fiona hit the Caribbean as a category one tropical storm on Sept. 18.

By Vivi Smilgius, Editor-in-Chief

When she’s not at Emerson, sophomore business of creative enterprises major Pamela Matos lives in Guaynabo, a rural Puerto Rican town roughly five miles from the island’s capital, San Juan.

Guaynabo is among many Puerto Rican cities still suffering a loss of power in addition to flooding and property damage as a result of Hurricane Fiona, which hit several Caribbean islands—including Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic—as a category one tropical storm on Sept. 18. The hurricane hit Eastern Canada the following week. 

As of Tuesday, an estimated 17 people died and another 12,500 were displaced as a result of the storm, according to Reuters. Many areas, including the entirety of Puerto Rico, lost all power. Now, more than two weeks after Fiona made landfall, over 100,000 residents have yet to regain it.

While Matos’ family is safe, they are among many Puerto Ricans who spent days without water and electricity. 

“Electricity lines as well as water [run] one way from [San Juan] to [Guaynabo], so if it’s disrupted there’s no other way for light or water to get into my neighborhood,” Matos said.

Many blame the island’s generally disliked and often-protested electricity distributor, LUMA Energy. Owned by Canadian and American companies, LUMA is Puerto Rico’s only distributor of electricity. This recent privatization led to price hikes and weak, inconsistent service, particularly in the wake of the island-wide blackout caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

First-year visual and media arts major Ariana Sosa, who lives in San Juan, said LUMA customers’ electricity bills are now double or triple what they used to be—and the service is worse. In July alone, the company increased rates by 17.1% in its seventh increase of the year.

“LUMA doesn’t know the electricity structure of the island, so it has become worse since they came into power,” Sosa said. “They do sloppy jobs.”

In the wake of Fiona, Puerto Rico remains at the mercy of LUMA. While Guaynabo resident and Emerson parent Lourdes Quintana regained power and running water a few days after the hurricane struck, she said others in southern and western parts of the island are still without it.

“LUMA is the only company that decides when we are going back to normality,” Quintana said. “It’s amazing how our power authority hasn’t been capable of getting us electricity, at least, the power we need.”

Near-constant hurricanes and severe weather have made it almost impossible for Puerto Rico’s electricity grid to regain stability since Maria. Regardless of the weather, Quintana and Perez said power turns on and off randomly in different regions of the island.

Viviana Garcia Roqueta, Emerson’s Assistant Director of Student Affairs at Kasteel Well, grew up in Guaynabo and Cabo, Rojo Puerto Rico. They said the battle with LUMA is an ongoing one and expressed frustration over the long-term struggle between Puerto Ricans and access to electricity.

“Twenty years ago, it made sense for our electric system to be where it was,” Roqueta said. “It’s been 22 years. Our system should have improved.”

They added that those who can afford it often invest in diesel-fueled generators to ensure electricity amid blackouts. While generators—an expensive and temporary fix, Roqueta noted—provide relief to a small number of people, diesel fuel is nearly unattainable in the days before a hurricane due to high demand.

Sosa predicted the island-wide blackout but felt anxious upon hearing about her parents’ lack of running water. Watching from Boston as the hurricane hit her home was scary, she said, but she knew it wouldn’t be as bad as Maria.

Matos was also in Boston when Fiona hit Puerto Rico. While she was sad she couldn’t be home to support her family, she took comfort in knowing they were prepared. Boarding up windows and sandbagging areas of low elevation are common precautions taken before tropical storms to prevent property damage and mitigate flooding.

“In Puerto Rico, houses are old and weathered down, so maybe preparation won’t stop your house from getting ruined or flooded, but it will help,” she said. “Having an emergency plan… is definitely the best way to keep the anxiety down before a hurricane.”

Many families are faced with an infrastructure still recovering from Maria and other storms. Quintana said that, from a bird’s eye view, one can see many houses on the island have the same government-issued plastic roofs. These coverings were distributed five years ago to help people shelter after Maria and are still used in many houses today.

“Imagine those houses with plastic ceilings receiving Fiona,” Quintana said. “This is our reality.”

This reality is due in part to a lack of monetary and humanitarian aid. On Sept. 20 the U.S. government pledged $60 million in storm aid following, but estimated damages tally “in the billions,” Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Deanne Criswell told The New York Times. The States’ recent $60-million promise underwhelmed many Puerto Ricans, especially given the U.S. has distributed under half of the $42.7 billion it promised the island five years ago in the wake of Maria.

Under the Jones Act, which limits the transportation of cargo from U.S. ports to U.S. owned ships, Puerto Rico can only receive aid provided by the U.S. government, which slows rebuilding processes and limits resource distribution. President Joe Biden temporarily lifted the act following Fiona, which prompted many to call for the end of the law altogether.

“We could get so much aid if it wasn’t a temporary lift—if it was just lifted completely—but the United States makes money off disaster,” Roqueta said. 

Because of the slow distribution of humanitarian and infrastructural aid, Roqueta encouraged those who are able to donate to community service organizations like Techos Pa’ Mi Gente, Taller Salud, and Casa Pueblo, which provide on-ground assistance to communities and individuals in need.

As Puerto Ricans work together to fix property and access electricity and water, residents also support each other emotionally. It was difficult for Sosa to be in Boston when the hurricane hit, as she wanted to be on the island to support her family and friends. Instead, she found community in AMIGOS and comfort in outreach from the Emerson administration.

“I saw an email reaching out to Puerto Ricans about the hurricane,” Sosa said. “It was cool to know the school was aware it was happening and affecting students. I found it really cool that they care for us.”

Matos also received the email and felt grateful for the visibility Puerto Rico received after Fiona. While she’s experiencing the hurricane from the continental U.S. instead of at home, she said it’s nice to know she’s not alone.

While they are currently in the Netherlands, Roqueta expressed gratitude for the community they have in Puerto Rico. They said not many people understand the reality of living through a hurricane and the community bonding that follows storms like Maria and Fiona.

“We have great neighbors and a big community that really looks out for each other,” Roqueta said. “Everybody checks in on each other and calls everybody’s family to make sure they know they’re okay.”