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Why is Puerto Rico so vulnerable to blackouts?

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This week, Hurricane Fiona dropped more than two feet of rain on parts of Puerto Rico, resulting in catastrophic floods and mudslides that ripped apart homes and infrastructure. Even worse, many families were still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, which struck the vulnerable island exactly five years ago.

Perhaps most critically, Fiona again decimated Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure, which has been operating at weakened capacity ever since the knockout punch delivered by Maria. As widely reported, this week’s storm has stranded most of the commonwealth’s 3 million residents without power, meaning not only are homes and businesses in the dark but traffic lights, schools, hospitals, police stations, cell towers and water treatment plants are also unusable. The long-term humanitarian effects are almost unthinkable.

But Puerto Ricans have already rolled up their sleeves to clean up debris and assess the damage on their own. Rural communities in particular were most affected by the long-term blackout after Maria and will be the most affected this time as well. Residents remember how they cut down trees with machetes to find power lines hidden in the mountains and figured out on their own how to patch together the electric system themselves. Even then, it took six months for 50 percent of communities to regain power, and a year for the rest of the island. And still service was unreliable and subject to blackouts. There is no telling how long restoration will take this time. 

The failure of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) — the government-run power supplier — to restore service after Maria was only one aspect of 2017’s ineffectual recovery process that further deepened the community’s already ingrained distrust of the Puerto Rican government. This was further compounded when then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló took more than a month to cancel a $300 million repair contract awarded to Whitefish Energy Holdings, a Montana company run out of a single-family home by two people.  

However, even before Maria, there were power outages on the island, and PREPA had failed to invest in the outdated and inadequate electric grid. The system’s inefficiency resulted in Puerto Ricans paying $438 monthly for their energy needs before Hurricane Maria, compared to the U.S. average of $169. PREPA was also responsible for 10 percent of Puerto Rico’s $74 billion public debt — pushing the island deeper into poverty while still not improving service. After Maria, the commonwealth government privatized PREPA and estimated that the ailing power grid needed an investment of $17.8 billion. 

In 2021, LUMA Energy, a Canadian-Texan consortium was contracted to oversee distribution and customer service of the electricity generated by PREPA. Residents are divided, with varying degrees of confidence in LUMA, but the fact is that the island’s power has been unreliable since Maria. Luma blames PREPA for not producing enough electricity and failing to maintain transmission infrastructure, while PREPA blames LUMA for not distributing it efficiently. 

Outside of blame games between PREPA and Luma, the real issue is that federal investment is needed in the power grid, and it is well past time to consider rethinking the island’s entire power supply system. This longstanding crisis was made all the worse because of the inadequate response to Maria by the Trump administration, which has left Puerto Rico’s grid limping along without the necessary repairs and resilience upgrades it so desperately needed even before it was hit by two massive hurricanes within a 5-year period. 

Despite valiant efforts from dedicated Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and local recovery experts, the historical challenges faced by Puerto Rico, amplified by Maria, and compounded by an anemic congressional and presidential response, meant that another crisis was almost inevitable, though everyone hoped it would not come as soon as it has.

The truth is, Fiona could have been much, much worse, and climate scientists tell us that future storms will be more frequent, stronger and wetter. Puerto Rico’s location exposes it to the impacts of climate change, while its geography, development patterns and socioeconomic realities amplify its vulnerability. And as the island is battered again and again by increasingly damaging storms, its ability to bounce back will continue to deteriorate and 3 million innocent Americans will suffer in unthinkable conditions. 

Puerto Rico will continue to struggle without a reliable and, most importantly, resilient energy system. Without it, the island will lag in economic, human and social development, and these factors will feed one another, increasing the island’s risks exponentially. Puerto Ricans deserve better, and it is not hyperbolic to say the island faces an existential threat unless things change.

Today more than ever, a functioning and robust electrical supply is central to a community’s ability to rebound from disasters and advance human and economic development. Fiona will, hopefully, unlock additional billions in federal disaster recovery aid. With lessons learned from the recent past, addressing Puerto Rico’s post-Fiona challenges should focus on two critical issues. 

First, the federal government’s broken system of disaster recovery that relies on local implementation of federal programs needs to be reassessed so that communities who have been starved of resources in the past are not doubly penalized for lacking the capacity to overcome the devastating impacts of compound disasters. FEMA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other federal agencies need to continue the innovative approaches that worked well after Hurricane Sandy, tailoring them for Puerto Rico’s local context. 

Second, sustainable and resilient approaches for supplying power need to be prioritized, such as developing renewable-powered microgrids in both rural and urban areas. This will require an enormous capital investment, but so will rehabilitating the existing system. Remaking the island’s power infrastructure from the ground up will also pay enormous dividends in greenhouse gas mitigation, long-term cost savings, and, perhaps most importantly, a system that can withstand the looming effects of the next inevitable storm.

Donovan Finn is an urban planner and assistant professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. 

Ivis García is from Puerto Rico and is an associate professor in the Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning Department at Texas A&M University.

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