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Three Reasons for Puerto Rico’s Power Outage


Greater than 1,000,000 people in Puerto Rico were without power on Monday, and lots of were without running water, after Hurricane Fiona dropped 30 inches of rain on the mountainous island, causing widespread damage to homes and infrastructure. President Biden authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to mobilize and coordinate aid. Gov. Pedro Pierluisi told residents to stay at home and in shelters.

Fiona has had such a catastrophic impact partly for reasons that long preceded the storm’s landfall. Listed below are three major ones.

In some ways, Puerto Rico remains to be reeling from its last storm calamity, in September 2017, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the island only a number of weeks apart. Maria killed nearly 3,000 people. It took 11 months to revive power to all customers within the territory — a stretch, combined with that within the U.S. Virgin Islands, that researchers called the largest blackout within the nation’s history, based on the number of individuals affected and its duration.

While FEMA conducted extensive relief work within the storm’s immediate aftermath, federal funds for longer-term recovery on the island became snarled in political squabbling in Congress. The Trump administration also placed restrictions on portions of the island’s aid out of concerns that the cash could be mismanaged or squandered. Puerto Rican officials have called these concerns overblown, though they acknowledged that bureaucratic obstacles had impaired recovery projects.

The Biden administration began freeing up the help and removing the restrictions shortly after taking office last 12 months, as a part of an effort to deal with racial disparities within the impact of climate change.

Today, even with more government money flowing to Puerto Rico, progress rebuilding after Irma and Maria remains to be slow.

As of last month, the island’s government had spent only about $5.3 billion, or 19 percent, of the $28 billion in funding that FEMA has committed for post-2017 recovery projects, in keeping with Christopher P. Currie, a director within the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security and justice team. A big majority of this spending — 81 percent — has gone to emergency relief, resembling debris removal, Mr. Currie said. Considerably less has gone toward everlasting works resembling improvements to roads and utilities.

Mr. Currie disclosed the figures in testimony last week before a House subcommittee regarding FEMA’s work in Puerto Rico since Irma and Maria. He also identified several reasons the recovery has been a slog.

Local officials in some parts of Puerto Rico don’t have the experience or understanding of federal regulations to administer FEMA’s grant programs, Mr. Currie said. Inflation has driven up project costs. Municipalities have had trouble hiring engineers and contractors. The parts and materials for construction projects have taken a protracted time to obtain due to delays in global supply chains, Mr. Currie said.

Anne Bink, an associate administrator in FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery, told the identical House subcommittee last week that the agency was higher prepared to assist Puerto Rico weather a giant storm than it was in 2017, partly by keeping more emergency supplies on the island.

FEMA today has twice the variety of generators on Puerto Rico, nine times the water, 10 times the meals and eight times the variety of tarps compared with 2017, Ms. Bink said. The agency has also made it easier for homeowners there to receive disaster aid, she said.

Scientists will need time to pin down exactly how global warming brought on by the burning of fossil fuels contributed to Hurricane Fiona. But basically, rising sea levels led to by climate change are resulting in more dangerous storm surges from tropical cyclones: If coastal waters are already elevated, a storm surge may cause damage farther inland. Higher temperatures are also causing more water to evaporate from the oceans, and warmer air holds more moisture. Meaning storms can include heavier rain.

Because the planet continues to get hotter, scientists expect tropical cyclones to develop into stronger on average globally. There may be barely fewer, scientific models predict. But each could carry an even bigger wallop.

Today, scientists are working to grasp how climate change is affecting how hurricanes form and where they travel, along with their size and strength, said Kevin A. Reed, a climate scientist at Stony Brook University.

One recent study found that climate change added 10 percent to peak three-hour rainfall rates through the 2020 North Atlantic hurricane season.

“If you happen to get two feet of rain, 10 percent is a pair inches of rain,” Dr. Reed said — enough to cause substantially more damage in vulnerable places. “That’s a whole lot of rainfall to have along with what you’ll have had before.”

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