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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Three reasons Puerto Rico is in the dark

Two men kayaks on a flooded street after the passing of Hurricane Fiona in Barrio Playita, a neighborhood in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 19, 2022. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez)

By Raymond Zhong

More than 1 million people in Puerto Rico were without power to start the week, and many were without running water, after Hurricane Fiona dropped 30 inches of rain on the mountainous island, causing widespread damage to homes and infrastructure. President Joe Biden authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to mobilize and coordinate aid. Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia told residents to remain at home and in shelters.

Fiona has had such a catastrophic impact partly for reasons that long preceded the storm’s landfall. Here are three major ones.

The Trump administration restricted aid funds after the island’s last big storms.

In many ways, Puerto Rico is still reeling from its last storm calamity, in September 2017, when hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the island only a few weeks apart. Maria killed nearly 3,000 people. It took 11 months to restore power to all customers in the territory — a stretch, combined with that in the U.S. Virgin Islands, that researchers called the largest blackout in the nation’s history, based on the number of people affected and its duration.

Although FEMA conducted extensive relief work in the storm’s immediate aftermath, federal funds for longer-term recovery on the island became snarled in political squabbling in Congress. The Trump administration also placed restrictions on portions of the island’s aid out of concerns that the money would be mismanaged or squandered. Puerto Rican officials have called these concerns overblown, although they acknowledged that bureaucratic obstacles had impaired recovery projects.

The Biden administration began freeing up the aid and removing the restrictions shortly after taking office last year, as part of an effort to address racial disparities in the impact of climate change.

Puerto Rico’s government has been slow to rebuild.

Today, even with more government money flowing to Puerto Rico, progress rebuilding after Irma and Maria is still slow.

As of last month, the island’s government had spent only about $5.3 billion, or 19%, of the $28 billion in funding that FEMA has committed for post-2017 recovery projects, according to Christopher Currie, a director in the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security and justice team. A large majority of this spending — 81% — has gone to emergency relief, such as debris removal, Currie said. Considerably less has gone toward permanent works such as improvements to roads and utilities.

Currie disclosed the figures in testimony last week before a House subcommittee regarding FEMA’s work in Puerto Rico since Irma and Maria. He also identified several reasons the recovery has been a slog.

Local officials in some parts of Puerto Rico don’t have the experience or understanding of federal regulations to manage FEMA’s grant programs, Currie said. Inflation has driven up project costs. Municipalities have had trouble hiring engineers and contractors. The parts and materials for construction projects have taken a long time to procure because of delays in global supply chains, Currie said.

Anne Bink, an associate administrator in FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery, told the same House subcommittee last week that the agency was better prepared to help Puerto Rico weather a big storm than it was in 2017, partly by keeping more emergency supplies on the island.

FEMA today has twice the number of generators in Puerto Rico, nine times the water, 10 times the meals and eight times the number of tarps compared with 2017, Bink said. The agency has also made it easier for homeowners there to receive disaster aid, she said.

Climate change is leading to wetter storms.

Scientists will need time to pin down exactly how global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels contributed to Hurricane Fiona. But in general, rising sea levels brought about by climate change are leading to more dangerous storm surges from tropical cyclones: If coastal waters are already elevated, a storm surge can cause damage farther inland. Higher temperatures are also causing more water to evaporate from the oceans, and warmer air holds more moisture. That means storms can come with heavier rain.

As the planet continues to get hotter, scientists expect tropical cyclones to become stronger on average globally. There might be slightly fewer, scientific models predict. But each could carry a bigger wallop.

Today, scientists are working to understand how climate change is affecting how hurricanes form and where they travel, in addition to their size and strength, said Kevin Reed, a climate scientist at Stony Brook University.

One recent study found that climate change added 10% to peak 3-hour rainfall rates during the 2020 North Atlantic hurricane season.

“If you get 2 feet of rain, 10% is a couple inches of rain,” Reed said — enough to cause substantially more damage in vulnerable places. “That’s a lot of rainfall to have in addition to what you would have had before.”

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