Sep 27, 2022 - World

Puerto Rico's grim outlook

General view of an inundated Cooperative Rice Winter Nursery on Sept. 20  in Lajas, Puerto Rico. Photo: José Jimenez/Getty Images

General view of an inundated Cooperative Rice Winter Nursery on Sept. 20 in Lajas, Puerto Rico. Photo: José Jimenez/Getty Images

Puerto Ricans are scrambling to figure out how — or whether — to rebuild after yet another major disaster.

State of play: About 33% of homes and businesses were still without power Tuesday morning — more than a week after Hurricane Fiona hit, according to Luma Energy, the island's grid operator. Thousands still don’t have running water.

  • Some roads remain blocked by flooding and rock slides, leaving several communities in the south isolated, without access to supplies.

Driving the news: While Fiona — a Category 1 hurricane when it made landfall — was considerably weaker than 2017's Hurricanes Maria and Irma, both Category 5 storms, its devastation is expected to compound the already strained recovery efforts from the past disasters.

For small business owners, the cascade of disasters on top of the island's long-standing bankruptcy issues has made even the thought of rebuilding again hard to bear.

  • “This is the fifth time everything floods, the fifth time I lose it all," Carmelo Vázquez Rivera, who owns a TV and electronics repair shop, told Noticias Telemundo after Fiona hit. "I’ve started back up before, but this time I just … don’t have the strength,” he said.

The big picture: A U.S. Congress-established financial oversight board, nicknamed La Junta, remains mostly in charge of the island’s budget. La Junta has been criticized by some lawmakers, who argue the board's austerity measures after Hurricane Maria made recovery harder.

  • La Junta agreed to release up to $250,000 to each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities for Fiona's recovery. President Biden also approved a major disaster declaration for the island and ordered federal aid to assist with recovery efforts.
  • But many worry the money and declaration won't be enough, especially for an island with a history of corruption, delays in aid distribution and budgetary mismanagement.

Others have taken authorities to task for not enacting more programs that could make the island more resilient.

  • “There should have been more investments in weather-resistant designs of roads and the grid line,” Martha Quiñones, professor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, told El Nuevo Día.
  • Puerto Rican authorities in 2019 set a goal of transitioning to renewable power by 2050, which would help more people weather the storms by having a grid that doesn’t get as easily knocked down by winds and rain.
  • But as of February about 3% of the island’s electricity comes from renewables, mostly pushed by NGOs working with solar power.

There's also a concern that the island will continue to experience the brain drain that worsened after Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

  • The island saw an 11.8% drop in its population between 2010 and 2020, according to Census data
  • Part of that is due to the island's struggling economy made worse by crisis after crisis. Many people who’ve remained on the island have been pushed out of their homes by land developers and cryptocurrency investors, who have bought out apartment buildings and other properties, making rents soar and prompting more Puerto Ricans to leave for the mainland U.S.

The bottom line: The island was still years away from fully recovering from Maria and Irma when Fiona hit.

  • Those recovery efforts are expected to take longer now, leaving many Puerto Ricans fearing for when the next disaster may strike.

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