Hurricane Fiona once again laid bare the substantial vulnerability of Puerto Rican society. The impact of a weather event is not only a function of its force or potency, it is also a function of the pre-existing level of vulnerability of a given society. Puerto Rico was extremely vulnerable before Fiona since only 30% of all permanent reconstruction work related to Hurricane Maria had begun; thousands of people still lived in flood-prone areas; and essentially nothing had been done to strengthen the power grid and other critical infrastructure or increase their resilience. Given all that, the key question to ask is: why, five years after Hurricane Maria, is the reconstruction process so far behind?
This question is particularly relevant in the case of Puerto Rico’s electricity system. Over the past eight years, Puerto Rico has passed laws and adopted state-of-the-art regulations in the energy policy sector. In addition, the federal government has committed almost $12 billion for the reconstruction of the grid. Therefore, we have clear public policy objectives and the money to achieve them. The obvious question, then, is what is the flaw?
The short answer is that even before Fiona struck, the lack of coordination between the federal government, Puerto Rico’s government agencies, and the island’s municipalities was evident. For example, at a September 15 public hearing in Congress, representatives from FEMA, the GAO, and COR3, could not agree on the number of long-term projects underway and the amount of money that had been spent to strengthen the power grid.
The FEMA representative emphasized that it had committed some $9.5 billion for the long-term reconstruction of the network; while the GAO representative pointed out that of that amount only about $40 million had been spent; shortly thereafter, however, the director of COR3 described as “progress” that some $183 million had been spent on the reconstruction of the grid. It is obvious, then, that the parties are either not speaking the same language, or using the same definitions, or both. There is a clear lack of communication, which ultimately requires coordination.
In addition, in the case of the power grid, there appears to be no agreement on what the plan is to rebuild it. The Puerto Rico Energy Bureau argues that the grid should be rebuilt according to Puerto Rico’s Integrated Resource Plan (“IRP”), while PREPA appears to be working to implement a different plan called the “Ten Year Modernization Plan” and LUMA appears to be working on its own “System Remediation Plan.” Likewise, the federal Department of Energy (“DOE”) is currently working on another grid modernization plan for Puerto Rico, which should be completed by the end of 2023.
It is important to note that while the IRP establishes the legal requirements for the modernization and operation of the grid over the long term (twenty years), it was not written specifically for Maria’s reconstruction and recovery process. On the other hand, the plans submitted by PREPA and LUMA assume a shorter time frame and are proposals made specifically in relation to the ongoing reconstruction process. The DOE initiative appears to be an attempt to present a roadmap for achieving 100% of generation using renewable sources by 2050. Clearly, then, there is a failure of coordination, because while these plans have partial overlaps and intersect in some respects, they are based on different assumptions, have different implementation timelines, and, in the end, seek to achieve different goals.
President Biden recently visited Puerto Rico and announced that the DOE would be in charge of coordinating the work of the federal agencies to accelerate the electricity grid’s reconstruction. Even though we don’t have all the details this seems to be a step in the right direction. However, we believe the current confluence of events calls for President Biden to take bold action and order the creation of an entity similar to the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which was created by President Obama under Executive Order 13632 of 7 December 2012 and encompass the entire reconstruction process, not just the energy sector.
A Puerto Rico Recovery Task Force would: have an explicit mandate to coordinate recovery efforts among and between the federal agencies and among and between the federal government and the government of Puerto Rico; provide for the inclusion of Puerto Rican elected officials at all levels and their representatives, including the COR3, through an advisory group; promote subsidiarity and inclusiveness by engaging local stakeholders, municipalities, community organizations, NGOs active in Puerto Rico, and business leaders; and strengthen the local economy by ensuring that residents of Puerto Rico and local business enterprises are hired on a priority basis.
In several weeks we will move on from the immediate response to Hurricane Fiona to planning for the reconstruction of the damage caused by that natural phenomenon. When the cameras are turned off, the international media stops covering Puerto Rico, and life on the island begins to resume its daily rhythms, it is imperative that we not forget those who lost their homes, the communities that were left inaccessible, and the small business owners who lost everything. At this juncture, the need to carefully define precise planning, coordination and execution frameworks, and to improve the flow of information, becomes clear. In other words, an entity is needed to comprehensively coordinate and manage Puerto Rico’s recovery.
This column was originally published in Spanish on El Nuevo Día on October 7, 2022.