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Opinion | After Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Rico faces a legacy of failure

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Even before rain lashed Puerto Rico starting Sunday, unleashing devastating floods, a perfect storm of ill will, decrepit infrastructure, red tape and official ineptitude had enfeebled the island’s defenses and left it ripe for a knockout blow. Hurricane Fiona delivered it.

Puerto Rico’s latest natural disaster reflects a chronicle of lessons unlearned. It was five years ago, nearly to the day, that Hurricane Maria ran roughshod over the U.S. territory, triggering a blackout that lasted nearly 11 months for many of its more than 3 million people. Given the mounting probability of further such storms as the climate changes, which will elevate sea levels, evaporation and rain volume, Maria should have served as an urgent warning of the cost of delay and dysfunction. Instead, it heralded a desultory response marked by partisan infighting in Washington and compounded by incompetence in Puerto Rico.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Luis A. Miranda Jr.: How to get Puerto Rico help now

The effect was visible Monday, after Fiona had finished with Puerto Rico. The island’s power grid was crippled; 1.5 million had lost electricity; many were without water; and some rural communities were cut off. On Tuesday, more than 1 million people remained without power.

Maria had left 3,000 people dead, along with a grim tableau of wrecked homes and businesses. That was a moment for Washington to act with all due speed to relieve and rebuild. Instead, Puerto Ricans were subjected to the belittling spectacle of President Donald Trump tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd in Guaynabo, a suburb of San Juan.

That cavalier gesture was an apt symbol of the chaotic response to come. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers bickered. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was effective in the weeks right after the storm, but then things bogged down. As Mr. Trump labeled Puerto Rico as corrupt, federal officials attached onerous conditions to releasing the extensive aid that Congress had approved.

Critically, the job of remaking the island’s power grid — converting it into an up-to-date system hardened to withstand further storms — stalled as billions of dollars in aid from FEMA arrived too slowly. A U.S.-Canadian private consortium, called Luma Energy, took over the job of modernizing the electricity system last year and has since failed miserably. Puerto Ricans have been living with routine blackouts; practically every household that can afford a private generator has one.

Recognizing that the island is hobbled by a decades-old power grid prone to chronic failure, Congress allocated about $12 billion to overhaul it, the biggest allocation of funds to FEMA in the agency’s history. But Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, has not been up to the job; the utility is bankrupt, and efforts to restructure its $9 billion debt have failed.

The Biden administration cut red tape and unlocked funds, to no discernible effect. It needs to do more to ensure that the past, and the present, do not become prologue for episodic storm disasters. One place to start would be to revive the position of special representative for Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery, established in the Trump administration’s final year and subsequently abolished when President Biden took office. An overseer who can corral the bureaucracy and manage a massive problem would help — and should signal a renewed commitment to aiding an island packed with U.S. citizens.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).

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