- Alia Rodriguez
Hurricane Fiona and the Political Aftermath
On September 16, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other smaller islands like Lesser Antilles. Severe damage was caused by heavy rainfall, flooding, and high winds.
Hurricane Fiona causes massive infrastructure damage in Puerto Rico. Source: Center for Disaster Philanthropy
Hurricane Fiona started its treachery with 85 mph winds in southwest Puerto Rico. The entire island of Puerto Rico lost power from a grid failure, which left approximately 1.5 million customers without electricity. According to Gomez of LUMA Energy, the main operator of the power grid on the island and a recent subject of controversy, authorities are planning to repair the electricity, along with local agencies. On September 22, over 60% of customers were reported lacking electricity and a third of them lacking water. In addition, 40% of homes lack clean water due to a filtration system Puerto Rico’s sole water agency, AAA, has not been able to provide clean running water to 40% of homes due to filtration systems not being able to function without the electricity. When Hurricane Fiona arrived in Puerto Rico, many roofs still had blue tarps left over from Hurricane Maria. Five years prior, the island also suffered from the damaging Hurricane Maria, which led to the deaths of over 3,000 people. These blue tarps were temporary methods until there could be more permanent repairs. Hurricane Maria severely worsened and destabilized the power grid, which is still impacting Puerto Rico today.
The events of Hurricane Fiona have exposed the lack of proper government response after Hurricane Maria, which caused an estimated amount of over $100 billion in damages. The power grid has not been adequately restored and still leads to frequent widespread blackouts, even though utilities bills continue to increase for citizens. Based on information from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, Puerto Ricans are paying almost double in power prices within two years.
These rising costs, compounded by the constant outages, have led to concerns and protests throughout the island, especially after the privatization of the electric grid by LUMA, which started oversight in June 2021. Many residents have been outraged by LUMA, as it contributes to the rising prices and enables the long and constant blackouts, loss of employment through the transition, and poor working conditions. Hurricane Fiona has reignited this anger, as the entire island was without electricity and the grid was once again damaged- Puerto Rican residents are left wondering where their increased payments are going. As a territory of the United States, Hurricane Fiona has also brought back concerns about how the United States provides help in dire situations, such as these.
According to Anne Bink, the FEMA Assistant Administrator for Response and Recovery, there are over 300 responders from FEMA working in Puerto Rico to help during this emergency. On the Sunday that Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico, U.S. President Biden approved an emergency declaration for the island, enabling this FEMA response and other relief efforts. According to CNN, Bink suggested that FEMA is focusing on many aspects, including “emergency generation and power missions for critical facilities and ensuring command and control structure is in place,” for recovery. Due to landslides in Cayey, the Puerto Rico National Guard rescued 21 people in an elderly home. The National Guard rescued 59 people and 13 pets from flooding in Mayagüez. Individuals in municipalities, Añasco, Salinas, Toa Baja, and others were also reduced by the National Guard. Maj. Gen. José J. Reyes of the Puerto Rico National Guard addressed that approximately 1,000 people were rescued by emergency response teams. According to Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi, 2,146 people and 254 pets are spread across 113 shelters. Puerto Rico received over 30 inches of rainfall in certain regions, like in the south and southeast. A gauge near Ponce, Puerto Rico, even measured 32 inches, and multiple gauges have measured over 20 inches. There were also winds of over 70 mph, especially in south Puerto Rico.
Damage sustained in Puerto Rico. Source: NBC News
Activists worry that extensive damages in Puerto Rico also make it more vulnerable to wealthier investors taking advantage and purchasing land. This would endanger residents to eviction and displacement, which many attribute to Act 60 through its incentivization for non-residents to move to Puerto Rico for tax breaks. After Hurricane Maria, an influx of Puerto Ricans left the island for the mainland due to economic struggles, damages caused to their homes, and other crises, like unemployment. Some professors are suspecting that this may happen again to an extent after Hurricane Fiona, especially depending on the speed of recovery and power restoration. Puerto Ricans and supporting groups, like Casa Pueblo and Taller Salud, have been working to improve conditions on the island, both socially and environmentally. Some, like the environmental group Alianza para Energía Renovable Ahora (Alliance for Renewable Energy Now), have even been working towards building solar panels for heavily impacted communities. Furthermore, there have been more calls for the government to prioritize the concerns of its residents more, especially in such dire circumstances, where residents have been self-reliant due to limited resources. After causing such massive impacts in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona carried its treachery into the Dominican Republic.
In the Dominican Republic, there were 90 mph sustained winds when Hurricane Fiona had made landfall and even brought a wind gust to 98 mph to the Dominican Republic. For safety reasons, 800 people were evacuated and there were over 700 in shelters, according to the officials. On September 20, Turks and Caicos was being impacted by the effects of Hurricane Fiona with heavy rain and wind. Hurricane Fiona had become a Category 3 storm and officials ordered a shelter-in-place advisory. During the storm, Turks and Caicos experienced approximately 125 mph winds and power outages.
The islands in the Caribbean have been working to restore and repair the damage inflicted by Hurricane Fiona. Such events bring issues, like unstable electricity and water supply systems to the forefront. This is especially evident in the island of Puerto Rico due to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Issues regarding proper management and supply issues have been questioned and moving forward, there is still much improvement to be made regarding such circumstances.