Exactly five years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, killing at least 3,000 residents and causing the island’s electrical system to collapse, the US territory is once again dealing with the aftermath of a massive storm that it is not fully prepared.
In the wake of Fiona, which made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans were again left without power. The island’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi, called the blackouts, massive flooding and landslides “catastrophic”.
The answer to Fiona could be revealing. The Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria has been widely seen as wholly inadequate, and the island’s infrastructure is still far from resilient enough to absorb any further shocks. But federal officials have learned from Maria’s response and are already showing signs of implementation. While some see progress in responding to Fiona, others say there’s still a long way to go.
Before Fiona, FEMA had more supplies in place
Anne Bink, associate administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Office of Response and Recovery, says the agency is in a much better position to respond to Fiona than it was to Maria.
Five years ago, there was only one FEMA warehouse with supplies on the entire island. Now there are four, she said.
“We have 10 times more food, 10 times more water than when Maria hit and made landfall in Puerto Rico,” Bink said. “And we also have triple generation support, temporary power support.”
Last week, she says, the agency pre-deployed “hundreds” of federal response personnel to the island in preparation for Fiona’s landing. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell also traveled to the island to meet with officials, she said.
But funding from Puerto Rico came slowly. In 2020, three years after Maria, the Trump administration announced $9.6 billion to rebuild the island’s power grid destroyed by Maria.
“This work is ongoing and accelerating,” Bink said, adding that FEMA has been “laser-focused” on resilience — strengthening systems against natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes.
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The island’s infrastructure still poses huge challenges
But it’s not enough to restore vulnerable systems to the state they were in before they collapsed, says Craig Fugate, who served as FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama.
“You had emergency repairs after Maria just to get it back in place,” he says. “Then there was the permanent work. And a lot had been done to strengthen the lines of transmission, but it was not complete.”
Even so, with Fiona, “you’ve already seen washed out bridges that were rebuilt after Maria,” he says. “If we built infrastructure after Maria was wiped out in this storm, we didn’t rebuild it the right way.”
Carmen Yulín Cruz experienced this frustration firsthand as mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, when Maria, a Category 4 storm, hit the island on September 20, 2017.
She says there has been a lot of talk, but not a lot of action.
“For the reconstruction, [it] was lip service,” Cruz says. “Almost every week, [we’d hear] X number of millions of dollars for this, X number of millions of dollars for that. But the execution…was non-existent.”
Cruz believes that renewable energy sources — especially solar — that power isolated microgrids are Puerto Rico’s way to protect itself from future natural disasters. If one part of the grid fails, it doesn’t take everything else with it. It is certainly far, but the island is committed to a plan to switch to 100% renewable energies by 2050.
In the shorter term, redundancy in key facilities is a way to prepare for tropical storms and earthquakes, says Brad Gair, emergency response expert at Witt O’Brien’s, a consulting firm specializing in risk assessment and management.
“Over the weekend, when power was cut to critical facilities, especially hospitals, [they went] on backup generators that I’m sure they had themselves or that FEMA had purchased for them” since Maria, he says. [electricity] generation… would be the solution.”
During Maria, confusion was everywhere
But getting humanitarian resources to people on the ground who can help is also vitally important, especially in the short term, says Anaís Delilah Roque Antonetty, who was in charge of a shelter in Puerto Rico after Maria.
She says there was a lot of confusion at all levels of government.
“Many shelters weren’t really prepared to receive the number of people they expected,” says Roque, an assistant professor of anthropology at Ohio State University.
“So logistically it was a top-down thing,” she says, adding that all levels of government “played a big role in [the] mismanagement.”
Talk with NPR morning edition On Tuesday, Yarimar Bonilla, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, blamed FEMA bureaucracy for Maria’s slow recovery.
FEMA funds, she said, were “overly controlled.”
“They are always slow, but they were [even more so] when it came to Puerto Rico,” she says. “They were held back, they were extremely vetted.”
“And so we know there were still people under blue tarps or people who were never able to fully fix their house,” Bonilla says.
The tone set by leaders can be crucial
FEMA’s response to Hurricane Maria was widely criticized, especially given the tone set by then-President Donald Trump, who tangled with territory officials, denied that thousands of people died from the storm and insisted that the federal response was “incredibly successful”. him only funds released to rebuild the island just weeks before the 2020 elections.
As much as the lack of coordination, how seriously government officials are perceived to be taking the situation matters, says Reggie Ferreira, program director of the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy at Tulane University’s School of Social Work.
It’s especially important that “political figures come forward and emphasize their support and actually deliver their support,” he says.
“Look at Hurricane Sandy,” Ferreira says. “If you see how [then-New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie was in the foreground, the president [Barack] Obama was in the foreground. The tone is important.”