Why Puerto Rico has no electricity and the catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Fiona

Puerto Rico is currently experiencingLife-threatening and catastrophic floods“After, after Hurricane Fiona It made landfall on the island this weekend as a Category 1 storm. It’s a dangerous situation for a province still recovering from Hurricane Maria, which hit the island in 2017.

no one On the island the electricity was on Sunday night. The storm – which has now engulfed the Dominican Republic – dumped more than two feet of rain in some areas, as swollen rivers wiped out at least one bridge. one death Reported and emergency crews nearly rescued 1,000 people.

All this from a category 1 rated storm only.

It is easy to assume that what makes a hurricane dangerous is the strength of its winds, which determine the category of severity in which it falls (a Category 1 storm Maximum sustained winds are between 74 and 95 mph, the lowest of any hurricane). But wind speed doesn’t tell the whole story, and Hurricane Fiona shows how it happens Categories System can fail.

Floodwaters inundated a house in Caye, Puerto Rico on Sunday, September 18.
Stephanie Rojas/AFP

There are some meteorological reasons that led to the flooding of this storm with torrential rains on the island. However, the biggest culprit is the damaged infrastructure in the area, which was collapsing long before Fiona hit.

“The scale of a disaster is not a function of the scale of the event but rather the vulnerability of a community,” said Marla Perez-Logo, professor of sociology and disaster studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “In Puerto Rico, it was all on its knees.”

More than a foot of rain fell in parts of the island that are usually dry

Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sunday, with sustained winds 90 mph. While storm surges at these speeds can cause serious damage, the storm’s rainfall was—and still is—particularly severe.

The area with the heaviest rainfall was in the eastern portion of the storm, the exact portion that passed over the island, said Paul Miller, associate professor of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University. “Most parts of the island were under ‘Fiona’s heaviest rain zone,'” he said.

In addition, Fiona’s wind patterns have caused torrential rains over the southern part of the territory, he said. Miller said the rivers there tend to be narrower and there is less vegetation to absorb all that water, so floods can form more easily.

Hurricane Fiona on September 19.

“One of the reasons you can see more impacts from a Category 1 storm is that the dry side of the island is now, all of a sudden, saturated with all that rain,” Miller said. “This is a good example that you don’t always need Hurricane Maria in order to make big impacts.”

A particularly disturbing video shows floods that washed away a bridge in Ottoado, a mountainous town in central Puerto Rico. Perez-Logo said the bridge was built after Hurricane Maria as a temporary structure, and was never modernized and made permanent.

Network ready to fail

It doesn’t take much wind or water to lose power in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. The storm of 2017 completely destroyed the country’s grid, causing the second longest blackout in the world, that lasted for several months. Even small storms in Puerto Rico could drown a few hundred thousand people in the dark.

“The electrical system was really weak,” Perez-Logo said when Hurricane Fiona hit the island. “It’s poorly organized,” she added.

One of the problems, Perez-Logo said, is that all the power plants are in the southern part of the island, but most of the electricity consumption takes place in the north. This means that power lines travel miles and miles through mountains, where they are exposed to winds, landslides, and other storm-fueled influences. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” she said.

If these lines fail, large businesses and densely populated residential areas lose electricity. So one solution is to create a more distributed grid, where power is generated closer to those who use it.

A power line cut in Caye, Puerto Rico, on September 19.
Jose Gimenez/Getty Images

There is a lot of blame for the failed network, although much of it lies with a private US-Canadian company called LUMA Energy. In 2020, the energy company He won a 15-year contract To operate Puerto Rico’s transmission and distribution system (the territory’s power plants are still government-owned).

“People desperately needed to have a better electrical system,” said Perez-Logo. “Anything that could bring an alternative to the government-run monopoly was seen as good.”

But privatization has brought its own problems, including a lack of transparency and accountability, according to Fernando Tormos Aponte, an expert on disaster response and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. At the end of the day, the network could not withstand a relatively weak hurricane even five years after Maria.

“We want our customers to know that LUMA has been and will continue to operate around the clock to restore power to Puerto Rico after the island-wide outage that began early Sunday afternoon,” said Abner Gomez, director of public safety at LUMA Energy, He said in a statement Monday. “We will continue to work non-stop until every client is restored and the entire network is reactivated.” The company said it has restored power to more than 100,000 customers.

Of particular concern is that blackouts are a major contributor to deaths during extreme weather events. many of The death of Maria 3000 or sofor example, is attributed to a lack of electricity, which could disrupt health care services.

Outages can also cause disruptions to systems that supply water. “The power cannot be separated from the water,” Tormos Aponte said, noting that many water pumps require electricity to operate. “You have hundreds of communities that depend on community water channels that are out of power right now and have no way to provide water.”

How to make Puerto Rico more flexible

Emergency officials are still assessing the damage in Puerto Rico, and it could be days before power is fully restored. On Monday afternoon, nearly all of LUMA’s customers were tracked down through the outage website PowerOutage.us – or more than 1.3 million – were without electricity.

Meanwhile, attention is turning to how to prevent a similar outcome after the next storm. On the bright side, there is a lot of drooping fruit.

Perez Lugo said that while FEMA saved billions of dollars for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, much of that money has yet to be spent on infrastructure repairs.

“I would like to see a government that is more responsive and more in line with the needs of its population,” said Perez-Logo.

Experts also argue for more oversight and transparency around LUMA, the private company that operates Puerto Rico’s power system, and the territory’s central power utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).

“We need policies in place to ensure transparency and accountability,” Tormos-Aponte said. “We need to monitor how the money is used, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of acting quickly.”

More investment in renewable energy would help, too, such as rooftop solar panels and micro-grids that don’t drop even when central power plants fail, said Sergio Markswatch, director of policy at the Puerto Rican-based think tank. new economy. It would also help make the island’s power grid “smarter” and able to automatically sense exactly where the outage occurred.

Perhaps most frustratingly for experts, Puerto Rico has known for years what it has to do. “We have plans already in place to restructure and modernize the network,” Markswatch said. “We know exactly what to do.”

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