Human-induced climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Puerto Rico is particularly vulnerable because of its inability to finance disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation projects. The U.S. government wields political and economic control over Puerto Rico — effectively a form of colonialism, many scholars argue, that helped lay the conditions for Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt crisis.
U.S. and Puerto Rico government officials relied on neoliberal policy tools to address the debt crisis. But fiscal austerity, divestment of critical public infrastructure and privatization of essential public services have left Puerto Ricans increasingly vulnerable to disasters.
Hurricanes may not discriminate, but governments and utility companies do, our research finds
Hurricane Maria caused immense damage to infrastructure, livelihoods and life in Puerto Rico. Gross neglect and discriminatory restrictions on disaster aid spending under the Trump administration exacerbated the losses, damage and trauma. The U.S. government explicitly earmarked $65.7 billion in aid for the 2017 disasters in Puerto Rico but has paid out just $19.3 billion to date. That figure only covers 14 percent of the estimated damage from Maria. Five years on, many of the “fixes” involve temporary, haphazard construction.
Puerto Rico remains ill-prepared
Our research finds that in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, at-risk populations saw their power restored later than less-vulnerable communities. Additionally, supporters of the ruling party — the Partido Nuevo Progresista, or PNP — had their power restored quicker. We find that this preferential treatment helped the PNP sustain electoral support.
Inequalities during the Hurricane Maria recovery, coupled with the inadequate federal government response, left Puerto Ricans ill-prepared for disasters like Hurricane Fiona. While many stopped relying on government aid and instead developed mutual aid projects, local civil society leaders refuse to let elected officials off the hook. However, Puerto Ricans’ efforts to hold their leaders accountable for greater investments in infrastructure and disaster preparedness have yet to bring about transformative changes in political leadership. Federal and territory-wide elected officials continue to follow austerity policies and privatize public services, despite the need for greater investment.
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Privatization hasn’t helped
Luma, the company that took over Puerto Rico’s now-privatized energy transmission and distribution services last year, has come under criticism for failing to provide adequate and affordable electricity service. Our interviews in recent months with mayors and emergency management operators found few signs that Luma was communicating effectively with local officials. In fact, local emergency managers shared their concerns that another extreme weather event would have a serious impact, as they believed Luma regional supervisors would be unable to coordinate effectively with municipal emergency management. This week, mayors confirmed the lack of communication with Luma and started hiring their own power restoration crews. Luma then filed a police report against the mayor of the municipality of Isabela. A former attorney general referred to Luma’s report as potentially frivolous.
Press reports detail ongoing complaints about the company’s transparency and accountability. Other reports claim that Luma has made few substantial improvements to the electricity grid. When pushed for answers, Luma officials say that they are all Puerto Ricans and that they are in this together. These appeals to Puerto Rican national identity and a shared discontent with the energy grid have not been well received. In July, Puerto Ricans protested the high rates and electricity disruptions, demanding that the government cancel the Luma contract. The current outages are again prompting protests.
Various reports find that power outages lasted longer under Luma. Indeed, Luma’s 2021 metrics suggest the utility was taking twice as long to resolve an outage than when the grid was under the direction of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). After Luma failed to comply with orders to provide data on outages and salaries of employees, a Puerto Rican judge last November issued an order for the arrest of the Luma president and chief executive.
Critics say Luma, along with the local and federal government, failed to invest in grid improvements, leaving service unpredictable. Lower-income and vulnerable communities are especially at risk in terms of being able to afford steep electricity rates. Puerto Ricans pay twice the U.S. national average for electricity, and electricity bills keep increasing, despite inconsistent service. Energy poverty forces many Puerto Ricans to decide on whether to pay for energy or food, because they cannot meet both needs.
This disaster is a political one
Politicians and politics are embedded in the creation, preparation and responses to natural hazards — this was true for Hurricane Maria and is for Fiona. On the campaign trail, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi was critical of the unpopular contract with the private energy company Luma. Once in office, Pierluisi shifted his tone, becoming an advocate for the company. Media reports note Pierluisi has a history of ties with energy companies with poor environmental records, but also has ties to privatization advocates, including the fiscal control board tasked with the implementation of austerity policies and debt restructuring deals.
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As public pressure mounted to cancel the Luma contract and protests became more frequent, Pierluisi announced that Luma was under probation — but the probation terms remain unclear. Luma and Pierluisi are also under public scrutiny following allegations that Luma hired PNP supporters to positions of power within the company.
The revolving doors and the use of government resources to rally support for political parties are not new. Local officials participated in corruption schemes with the previous public utility, PREPA. And local officials awarded controversial contracts to newly formed firms to support the post-Maria recovery, and again to privatize energy distribution and transmission. We also found evidence that the recovery after Hurricane Maria was unequal and gave preferential treatment to supporters of the ruling PNP.
After privatization of the electricity utility, bureaucratic barriers stalled recovery and prevented many necessary infrastructure improvements. Relatedly, communities denounced the territorial government’s complicity in the deforestation of Puerto Rico and approval of controversial coastal construction projects, which left the archipelago more vulnerable to flooding.
Of course, everyone hopes that power can be restored as soon as possible in Puerto Rico. But our research suggests that disaster recovery relies on policy decisions, as well as technical fixes. The devastation wrought by Fiona precipitated from the post-Maria crisis and reflects the shortcomings of the disaster management policies of the U.S. government, Puerto Rican authorities and electricity providers.
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Fernando Tormos-Aponte (@fernandotormos) is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a Union of Concerned Scientists Fellow.
Mary Angelica Painter (@MaryAPainter) is a postdoctoral research associate for the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and a co-director for the Confluence chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network.
Sameer H. Shah (@SameerHShah) is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Pittsburgh and an incoming assistant professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington.