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Pictured: Flooded Scene in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Photo by the Ponce municipality.
Across the island, municipalities struggle to keep up with rampant flooding and collapsing infrastructure. Unclear if the National Guard is in talks with individual mayors. Photo: Ponce Municipality.

Puerto Rico grapples with lingering consequences of Maria as a new Hurricane sweeps the island

Abated by flooding and total outages, Puerto Ricans experienced revived experiences from Hurricane Maria in 2017, a devastating natural phenomenon.

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Before Puerto Ricans could look back on the five-year mark since Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sep. 20, 2017, a storm turned Category 1 hurricane struck the island last night, leaving a flooded scene across multiple towns and rendering 100% of citizens without power. The events are an inevitable reminder of a past catastrophe. 

Hurricane Fiona’s passage through Puerto Rico began as a tropical storm in the Caribbean, expected to amass sufficient energy to become a Hurricane by the time it reached the island at 80mph, at 2 p.m. according to NOAA. Early on Sunday, local outlets prepared Puerto Ricans for Fiona’s course through the island with the strength of a Hurricane. 

But before heavy rainfall could pour through the night, a website dedicated to tracking rolling outages in the U.S. reported a 100% loss of power across the island, at 1:49 PM. 

“As a result of poor weather, including winds at 80mph from Hurricane Fiona, the electric grid has suffered several interruptions in the transmission lines that contributed to the island’s general outage. Current conditions are extremely dangerous and are presenting difficulties in our capacity to evaluate the situation as a whole,” LUMA energy said in a statement.

“Given the magnitude and reach of the outage and the effects of Hurricane Fiona, total system restoration could take several days,” they added.

LUMA’s announcement, accompanied by a chorus of media outlets, echoes headlines from 2017 when Puerto Rican citizens were without power following Maria’s passage for over six months. On Sunday, before the natural phenomenon lashed the island, electricity across all towns was shut down. 

Pictured: 2017 headline in Puerto Rico that read: 100% of the island without power
Similar headlines circulated in social media after Maria stating that 100% of the island was without power. Photo: El Nuevo Día

Currently, service restoration continues to be slow going, with minimal signs of improvement. In a press conference, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi said grid repairs would be a days-long effort, as opposed to the six-plus months of work it took to restore power in 2017.

Clients are not convinced and may have good reasons for distrust. Since LUMA’s installment as the island’s private power utility in 2021, following contentious negotiations and public outcry, service in Puerto Rico sharply declined. 

In a 2021 reliability report, LUMA revealed it took 323 minutes, or 5.4 hours, to reestablish service after an outage, a stark 50% increase from the year prior, in the pre-contract period when LUMA was still in talks with local government officials. 

In 2022 alone, over three island-wide blackouts were reported, including a recent August outage that resulted in a damaged backup generator at Auxilio Mutuo in San Juan, one of the largest hospitals in Puerto Rico whose patient intake load is larger in comparison to other local hospitals and care units. 

Additionally, during a press conference in May, Pierluisi assured outlets that Puerto Rico was “on another level,” of preparedness ahead of hurricane season. Although much is left to be seen from the government response, initial incident reports aren’t promising. 

Hefty days-long rainfall resulted in citizen-led evacuating efforts since, according to the governor’s Facebook page, many of the brigades weren’t able to deploy emergency assistance given the ongoing weather conditions. 

 

“This is completely destroyed. All roads are damaged. We don’t know if the bridges are standing or not. Communities still isolated,” said Utuado mayor Jorge Pérez in an interview with Radio Isla, a local radio station.

Bridges in the town of Utuado, a town neighboring the island were disengaged from the original structure, swept by the currents. According to the video source, American journalist David Begnaud said the bridge was just recently installed. 

“[The floods] aren’t comparable. They surpassed 20ft. All communities are disconnected from the metro area. Without heavy equipment, we will not be able to intervene in the communities. We already requested assistance from the National Guard,” said Cayey mayor Rolando Ortíz Velázquez. 

Cayey is located south of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital. Although the Puerto Rico National Guard, the response time remains unclear, as well as what communications transpired with Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, many of which are located in deeply rural areas of the island. 

On Sept. 15, just a few days before Fiona made landfall, Congress held a public hearing with FEMA and LUMA officials to evaluate the state of affairs five years after Maria devastated the island. Anne Bink, Associate Administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery spoke before public officials.

In the meeting, Bink was unable to account for the distribution of $9.5 billion allocated for various recovery projects around the island. As many as 40 open projects linger, but Binks did not provide specifics. 

She told the committee that $40 million were assigned for LUMA, which submitted $5 billion in restoration proposals, according to an official at the hearing. Anne Bink left Puerto Rico to weather the storm. 

“Seems kind of like… poetic,” said Congresswoman Dina Titus (D- Nevada). 

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