Insights from CNE
Hurricane Fiona Update
By Sergio M. Marxuach, Policy Director
The Big Picture
Nine days after Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico there are still approximately 500,000 customers without electricity in Puerto Rico. This situation has generated a heated public debate as to who is at fault for the lack of electric power in Puerto Rico. Some blame PREPA, others point the finger at LUMA, the private operator of the grid. In our view, this kind of finger-pointing is not very helpful, especially in the midst of the emergency response to Hurricane Fiona. In general, the demand and supply of electricity in a given electrical system have to balance at all times in order to avoid dangerous disturbances in the system that can cause it to shut down. If all generation units are working perfectly but there are breakdowns in the transmission and distribution grid, it will not be possible to deliver electricity to satisfy all demand. Conversely, if the transmission and distribution system is in tip-top shape, but there is insufficient generation, some clients will inevitably go without electric power. Prior to Fiona, both PREPA’s generation fleet and the transmission and distribution grid were in bad shape. The hurricane made things worse: it caused widespread damage to the grid and the rainfall it brought apparently also affected some generation units. Given what I mentioned above, you can imagine the difficulties involved in bringing the entire system back online. It has to be done carefully and in a piecemeal fashion. Electric service cannot be restored to a given area or region until both the transmission and distribution loop for that area has been repaired and there is sufficient generation capacity to meet the expected demand from that area. In the case of Puerto Rico, we also have to keep in mind that PREPA operates most of the generation capacity (although there are two big independent power producers) while LUMA is in charge of the operation and maintenance of the grid. In addition, pursuant to Section 5.13 of its agreement with PREPA, LUMA is in charge of coordinating the dispatch of electricity over the grid. In other words, it determines which units connect with the grid, at what time, and in which order. In the best of times, thus, keeping the lights on requires close coordination between LUMA and all large-scale power generators in Puerto Rico. After a devastating storm, such coordination is not only indispensable, it is vital.
Here is the latest data on the emergency response so far:
- Consumer Goods – Press reports during the past few days have highlighted problems with diesel distribution around the island. Apparently, sufficient supplies have been delivered to Puerto Rico but there are problems unloading the fuel from the transport ships to tanks onshore and delivery trucks. This situation is creating problems for supermarkets, hospitals, and businesses that currently depend on generators to keep operating at a normal pace.
- Hospitals – The local press reports that at least 16 hospitals still depend on generators for electricity and some of them are facing difficulties in obtaining adequate supplies.
- Housing – There is no data yet as to the number of homes that suffered damages due to Hurricane Fiona.
- Schools and Universities – The University of Puerto Rico was scheduled to reopen on the 26th of September but has been forced to postpone the date due to the lack of electric service, including at the main campus in Rio Piedras. Many public schools are still closed pending evaluation of the physical facilities.
- Shelters – Some 92 shelters remain open and approximately 178 people are still living there.
- Telecommunications – The government has changed the metric for cell phone service. Instead of clients with service, they are now reporting the percentage of “functional telecommunications antennas”. According to the official government data, “85.96% of sites are in service.” There have been reports of some areas without either cell phone or internet service in the south and western parts of the island.
- The Electric System – The most recent data is that 67% of clients have electric service.
- Transportation – Maritime ports have opened. Buses and trains are operating normally. The Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is operating as usual. Many roads remain inaccessible due to the accumulation of debris or landslides.
- Water – As of the time of this update, 87% of the clients of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority had water service.
Rebuilding devastated communities under a compressed timeframe, often juggling competing demands and problems that arise on a daily basis, and that are equally urgent, can prove challenging even in the best-prepared jurisdictions. After Hurricane María, these stresses were magnified in Puerto Rico because it was not only managing a large-scale recovery process, it was also simultaneously going through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. And now, of course, we have to address the damage caused by Hurricane Fiona.In addition, at any given time in a post-disaster context, there are many actors working rapidly and independently, while relying on imperfect information, and their interactions and intersections are important throughout every stage of the process. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, post-disaster recovery experts Robert B. Olshansky and Laurie A. Johnson highlighted the importance of overcoming unanticipated problems:
“Coordination is critical to recovery, due to many actors working in a compressed time environment and with constrained information flow. The only way to function effectively in a chaotic and uncertain environment is to provide information to actors systematically and coordinate with them regularly.”
Fiona and the Caribbeanization of Puerto Rico
During these times plagued by climate change, extreme natural phenomena impact both sides of the Atlantic. In Spain, it was feared that the same circulatory system that pushed Fiona into the Caribbean from Africa could cause a “dana” or “planetary trough” as Fiona interacted with the polar zone. But beyond the meteorological aspect, Fiona has attracted attention in Europe for several reasons:
1. The magnitude of the devastation it left behind in the Caribbean
Hurricanes Caribbeanize Puerto Rico and Fiona placed the island in the same catastrophic realm as the Dominican Republic and Guadalupe, also affected by the hurricane. Puerto Rico rarely pays attention to its West Indian neighbors, but, for the European media, Fiona has repositioned the island in its tropical Caribbean setting (“El huracán Fiona arrasa República Dominicana y Puerto Rico”, Euronews, 20/September/2022).
2. The precariousness of Puerto Rico’s reconstruction
The fact that Fiona coincided with the anniversary of Hurricane María has highlighted the island’s surprising lack of preparedness (“what an unlucky streak,” commented a Spanish friend), as well as the staggering delay in the reconstruction process five years after María.
The island’s perceived dependence on the U.S. for its reconstruction is a recurring theme in the Spanish media. El País, for example, reported: “Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, so it depends on the federal government to mitigate the effects of an emergency such as this one.” In this sentence, territoriality is equated with economic and institutional dependence. (“De María a Fiona: la pesadilla que se repite en Puerto Rico”, El País, 20/September/2022).
3. The repeated collapse of the island’s electric grid
This has been one of the main focal points of the European media (“El huracán Fiona provoca un apagón general y daños ‘catastróficos’ en Puerto Rico”, RTVE, 19/September/2022). The mere fact that the island was left in the dark for a long and indefinite period of time, that the electrical system has not been rebuilt five years after María, and that there are no institutional consequences for those responsible is unusual on this side of the Atlantic. By contrast, last April the government of the Canary Islands imposed a fine of €16million (about $16million) on two Endesa subsidiaries for a blackout that left the island of Tenerife in the dark in 2020 for 16.44 hours (yes, 16.44 HOURS).
4. Vulnerability to climate change
The British newspaper The Guardian has covered Fiona’s passage through Puerto Rico as part of its climate justice section. The article highlights that much of the island’s electrical infrastructure has been built in areas that are flood prone or susceptible to sea level rise, despite the fact that Puerto Rico happens to be one of three places in the world that have been most affected by extreme weather events in the past two decades. We occupy this sad distinction of climate vulnerability along with Haiti and Myanmar. (Climate Risk Index, 2021, German Watch).
“[C]ritics state…that authorities have learned nothing since the 2017 hurricanes,” the article reads, contrasting the simultaneous collapse of the island’s electricity and drinking water systems with FEMA’s “unprecedented” allocation of $16 billion for the reconstruction. (“Puerto Rico battles blackout and lack of water in wake of Hurricane Fiona”, The Guardian, 20/September/2022. “We have not recovered: Puerto Rico’s water supply remains vulnerable to hurricane fury”, The Guardian, 21/September/2022).
5. Comparisons with surrounding islands
The French press makes the same criticism for Guadeloupe that the English press does about Puerto Rico: the practice of building homes and infrastructure in flood-prone zones and the lack of will of the political class to address the issue has made the population particularly vulnerable to climate hazards (“Construction en zones inondables: le courage de dire la verité aux citoyens”, Franceinfo/Outremer, 21/September/2022). By way of comparison, in Guadeloupe, water production remained critical (50%) due to the damage caused by the floods to the drinking water pipes, but the electrical system had been restored to 90% 48 hours after the hurricane hit.
For those of you interested in reading that helps put things into historical context:
- Stuart B. Shwartz. Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (Princeton University Press, 2015)
- Francisco Moscoso. El gran huracán. Las deudas y la Resistencia en Puerto Rico en 1530 (Publicaciones Gaviota, 2018).
CNE in the News
September 20, 2022
Jim Sciutto interviews Sergio Marxuach on CNN Newsroom to discuss the effects of Hurricane Fiona on Puerto Rico’s electric grid.
September 25, 2022
Alicia Menendez interviews Deepak Lamba-Nieves on MSNBC’s American Voices to discuss humanitarian efforts happening on the ground and what more needs to be done.