It’s been six months since Hurricane Maria tore apart Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island’s electrical grids and turned life on the islands upside down.
In those six months, murders surged, the U.S. government continually bungled the response, more than 135,000 residents left the island for the mainland, and we still don’t know how many people the storm killed. Yet at the same time, all shelters are now closed, all hospitals are open, and power is mostly restored.
Well, actually on that last one let’s be real. In Puerto Rico, the power is still out for 103,000 people. Imagine the power being out in Cambridge, Massachusetts or Boulder, Colorado for six months. You probably can’t because that would be absurd, and yet that’s the size of the population without power in Puerto Rico even today. Furthermore, blackouts still happen in areas where the grid has been restored, indicating that lights and air conditions are still precious commodities.
It’s a black eye on the recovery efforts, and the root cause of so much of the suffering on the islands right now.
“I think of this as President Trump’s Katrina,” Judith Enck, an Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency administrator for the region, told Earther. “He set the tone from the start, took a long time to get down there, and he was almost instantly hostile to the mayor of San Juan who rightfully spoke out. He set the tone for the agencies.”
And there’s been a lot of struggles at the federal level, from sketchy contracts to restore power to the Federal Emergency Management Agency attempting to pack up shop before reversing course. The approach has been rooted in the legacy of colonialism that has defined the U.S. relationship with its territories, and the racism that has defined this administration.
But perhaps an even bigger issue is the legacy FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are leaving behind when it comes to the island’s grid. Thanks to how the agencies interpreted the Stafford Act, which governs how recovery funds are spent, they built back the grids exactly as they were. Which is to say they built them on rickety infrastructure tied to imported fossil fuels.
A disaster aid package passed in February provides funds—though just a fraction of the estimated $94 billion needed for a full recovery—to start building a more resilient grid, but billions have already been squandered to build back what was there, making it even harder to tear it down.
“Congress gave them new directions too late in the game,” Enck said. “All the suffering that has occurred, the people who died, the people who couldn’t refrigerate their diabetes medicine, all that suffering is going to happen again during the next hurricane.”
Where progress has been made, local communities and organizations have played a major role (and yes, Elon Musk also did a little to help, too). A recent CBS News report from David Begnaud, a correspondent who has doggedly pursued recovery, noted that Puerto Ricans are “some of the most resilient Americans we’ve ever met.”
“We have seen that local organizations, like Casa Pueblo, and the Puerto Rican diaspora throughout the United States, [are] the ones that have stepped up and filled the void of what should have been a competent response from the state and federal government,” Edil Sepulveda, a Puerto Rican lawyer and climate expert based in Washington, D.C., told Earther.
Sepulveda co-founded the group Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora, which has advocated for Senator Bernie Sanders’ modern day version of the Marshall Plan to restore the island to be ready for the next hurricane while also reducing its carbon dioxide emissions. He laid out seven points he’d like to see in the coming six months to show the federal and territory government are invested in getting Puerto Rico ready for a future more prepared for the risks of climate change. Chief among them are involving more local residents and companies in the decision-making process and recovery efforts.
And with a little more than two months until Atlantic hurricane season starts again, the clock is ticking.