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5 years on, failures from Hurricane Maria loom large as Puerto Rico responds to Fiona

A road is blocked by a mudslide caused by Hurricane Fiona in Cayey, Puerto Rico, on Sunday.
Stephanie Rojas
/
AP
A road is blocked by a mudslide caused by Hurricane Fiona in Cayey, Puerto Rico, on Sunday.

Updated September 20, 2022 at 9:21 AM ET

Exactly five years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, killing at least 3,000 residents and causing the collapse of the island's electricity system, the U.S. territory is again facing the aftermath of a massive storm for which it is not fully prepared.

In the wake of Fiona, which made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans were again without electricity. The island's governor, Pedro Pierluisi, has described the outages, massive flooding and landslides there as "catastrophic."

The response to Fiona could be telling. The Trump administration's response to Hurricane Maria was widely seen as wholly inadequate, and the infrastructure on the island is still far from resilient enough to absorb any new shocks. But federal officials have learned lessons from the Maria response and are already showing signs of putting them into effect. While some see progress in the response to Fiona, others say there is still a long way to go.

Ahead of Fiona, FEMA had more supplies in place

Anne Bink, the associate administrator of the Office of Response and Recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says the agency is much better situated to respond to Fiona than it was for Maria.

Five years ago, there was only a single FEMA warehouse with supplies on the entire island. Now there are four, she says.

"We have 10 times the food, 10 times the water that we had when Maria struck and made landfall in Puerto Rico," Bink says. "And we also have triple the generation support, the temporary power support."

A home is submerged in floodwaters caused by Hurricane Fiona in Cayey, Puerto Rico, on Sunday. Authorities said three people were inside the home and were reported to have been rescued.
Stephanie Rojas / AP
/
AP
A home is submerged in floodwaters caused by Hurricane Fiona in Cayey, Puerto Rico, on Sunday. Authorities said three people were inside the home and were reported to have been rescued.

Last week, she says, the agency pre-deployed "hundreds" of federal response personnel to the island in anticipation of Fiona's landfall. FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell also traveled to the island to meet with officials, she says.

But funding for Puerto Rico has come slowly. In 2020, three years after Maria, the Trump administration announced $9.6 billion to rebuild the island's electrical grid destroyed by Maria.

"That work is ongoing and is speeding up," Bink says, adding that FEMA has been "laser focused" on resiliency — hardening the systems against natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

A flooded road is seen during the passage of Hurricane Fiona in Villa Blanca, Puerto Rico, on Sunday.
Jose Rodriguez / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A flooded road is seen during the passage of Hurricane Fiona in Villa Blanca, Puerto Rico, on Sunday.

The island's infrastructure still poses huge challenges

But simply putting vulnerable systems back to the way they were before they collapsed is not enough, says Craig Fugate, who served as FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama.

"You had emergency repairs after Maria just to get it back on," he says. "Then you had the permanent work. And there had been a lot done to harden transmission lines, but it wasn't complete."

Even so, with Fiona, "you've already seen bridges are being washed away that had been rebuilt after Maria," he says. "If we built infrastructure back after Maria that got wiped out in this storm, we didn't build it back the right way."

Carmen Yulín Cruz experienced that frustration firsthand as mayor of Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan, when Maria, a Category 4 storm, hit the island on Sept. 20, 2017.

A utility pole with loose cables towers over a home in Loíza, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 15. Nearly five years have gone by since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, but the island's electrical infrastructure remains in deep disrepair.
Alejandro Granadillo / AP
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AP
A utility pole with loose cables towers over a home in Loíza, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 15. Nearly five years have gone by since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, but the island's electrical infrastructure remains in deep disrepair.

She says there was a lot of talk, but not much action.

"For the reconstruction, [it] was lip service," Cruz says. "Almost every week, [we'd hear] X number of millions of dollars for this, X number of millions of dollars for that. But the execution ... was nonexistent."

Cruz thinks renewable sources of energy — particularly solar — that feed into isolated microgrids are the way for Puerto Rico to protect itself from future natural disasters. If one part of the grid goes down, it doesn't take everything else with it. It's admittedly a long way off, but the island has undertaken a plan to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

In the shorter term, redundancy at key facilities is one way to be ready for tropical storms and earthquakes, says Brad Gair, an emergency response expert with Witt O'Brien's, a consultancy specializing in risk assessment and management.

"Over the weekend when the power went out at critical facilities, particularly hospitals, [they went] on backup generators that I'm sure they either had themselves or FEMA purchased for them" since Maria, he says. "Ultimately, getting redundancies in place, resilient [electricity] generation ... would be the solution."

During Maria, confusion was everywhere

But getting humanitarian resources to the people on the ground who can help is also vitally important, especially in the near term, says Anaís Delilah Roque Antonetty, who was a shelter manager in Puerto Rico after Maria.

She says there was a lot of confusion at all levels of government.

"Many shelters were not really prepared to receive the amount of people that they were expecting," says Roque, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at Ohio State University.

"So, logistically speaking, it was something from top to bottom," she says, adding that all levels of government "played a big role in [the] mismanagement."

Speaking with NPR's Morning Edition on Tuesday, Yarimar Bonilla, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, blamed the FEMA bureaucracy for the slow recovery from Maria.

FEMA funds, she says, were "overly policed."

"They're always slow, but they were [even more so] when it came to Puerto Rico," she says. "They were held back, they were extremely vetted."

"And so we know that there were still people under blue tarps or people who were never able to really fully repair their homes," Bonilla says.

The tone set by leaders can be crucial

FEMA's response to Hurricane Maria was widely criticized, particularly given the tone set by then-President Donald Trump, who tangled with the territory's officials, denied that thousands died from the storm and insisted the federal response was "incredibly successful." He only released funds to rebuild the island just weeks before the 2020 election.

As much as the lack of coordination, the seriousness with which government officials are seen to take the situation matters, says Reggie Ferreira, program director of the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy at Tulane University's School of Social Work.

It's especially important that "political figures come out and stress their support and actually deliver with their support," he says.

"Look at Hurricane Sandy," Ferreira says. "If you see how [then-New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie was in the foreground, President [Barack] Obama was in the foreground. Tone is important."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.