Hurricane Fiona Batters Puerto Rico Still Recovering 5 Years After María

Sep 19, 2022
5:22 PM

Flooding and damage in Caguas, Puerto Rico, caused by Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 storm that swept through the island on Sunday, September 18, 2022. (Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco/Latino Rebels)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — In the five years since Hurricane María tore through their country, the people of Puerto Rico have made efforts to rebuild in hopes that they would be ready for when the next one comes.

Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 storm that swept across Puerto Rico on Sunday, has shattered such hopes.

On Monday, the eve of Hurricane María’s five-year anniversary, Puerto Ricans awakened to a world not much different than the one they discovered five years ago, with many of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million inhabitants shrouded in darkness once again as strong winds and heavy rain caused the dilapidated electrical grid to crash.

Hospitals had to rush their patients on lifesaving machines to other hospitals after generators failed to start. Homes were washed away entirely by the floods.

Already, one in four residents lived day to day without knowing where their next meal would come from—a figure that is likely to skyrocket in the coming days as food spoils in refrigerators.

When Fiona hit, More than 3,000 houses were still sporting the blue tarps they’ve worn since María. In some places, the flooding caused by Fiona has been worse than the one brought by María, with the southern and eastern parts of the island experiencing catastrophic deluges.

“We’re tired. We’re exhausted. This isn’t the first time. We’ve been here for 40 years and it’s the same situation,” Eucelio Colón Valdez, a resident of Caguas, told Latino Rebels.

Fiona, the first storm to hit Puerto Rico in the 2022 hurricane season, made landfall at 3:20 p.m. on Sunday near Punta Tocón in Cabo Rojo, on the far southwestern tip of the island, unleashing winds of over 110 miles per hour and dumping up to 27 inches of rain in the island’s central region. All of Puerto Rico immediately plunged into darkness, save those places with working backup generators and other sources of power.

The lack of electricity to operate pumps left more than 750,000 customers without water as well.

In a news conference just before Fiona made landfall, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said that a loss of power “should not be a surprise to anybody.” He also warned of “catastrophic damages,” including fallen trees and electrical wiring, mudslides, and flooding.

In Utuado, located in the central mountainous region, a bridge built post-María was swept away by floodwaters. Multiple communities across Puerto Rico have seen houses destroyed by flash floods.

In the Dark (Again)

The day before Hurricane Fiona arrived, LUMA Energy, a U.S.-Canadian venture responsible for power distribution and transmission in Puerto Rico, warned residents that there would be “significant,” “large scale” interruptions to electrical services due to the oncoming storm.

Lack of power did not come as a surprise to many Puerto Ricans who have been experiencing monthly blackouts since LUMA took control of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid in 2021. The island’s power infrastructure had sustained heavy damage due to Hurricane María and remains largely in disrepair to this day.

In press releases issued on Saturday and Monday, LUMA Energy said the company mobilized 1,987 field employees across Puerto Rico and “positioned resources around the island to support the safe restoration of power.”

The company also said that it had restored service to 100,000 customers within the municipalities of Toa Alta, Toa Baja, the San Juan area, Bayamón, and Corozal, and that it is currently coordinating emergency response efforts with the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA), trying to increase generation capacity and restore service to more people.

Duke Austin, CEO of Houston-based Quanta Services, which owns half of LUMA, has said that the company could support LUMA Energy with up to 5,000 specialized workers to restore energy in the wake of Fiona. (Canada-based ATCO owns the other half of LUMA.)

Water Rising

The sheer quantity of rain, which began early on Sunday, caused water levels to jump from normal levels to major flood stage in the span of mere hours, with some rivers growing to more than five times their regular size.

In western Puerto Rico, the Río Grande de Añasco rose from four feet to 26 feet. On the north coast just east of San Juan, the Río Grande de Loiza, Puerto Rico’s largest river by volume, rose from six feet to 44 feet — higher than it did during María.

In Caguas, Colón Valdez and his family spent Sunday desperately bailing out their home with buckets as brown water kept streaming in through the windows. They could hear rocks and boulders slamming into the back of their home, caused by mudslides.

Five years ago, the torrential rain and heavy winds brought by Hurricane María almost tore the house down completely. Eucelio has since anchored the tin roof so it won’t go flying off, but he fears such measures won’t prevent a boulder tumbling down the mountainside from crushing his family as they sleep.

His daughter occasionally has nightmares because of María and was up all night terrified because of Fiona.

Across the street, his brother’s house flooded with more than two feet of water, and a fallen tree severed the line that supplies the home with electricity. His nephew José, who works as an electrician and helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relief efforts after María, attempted to reconnect the house but found that the damage was more extensive than he had realized.

“The FEMA response is going to take a really long time,” José said as he hacked his machete through fallen tree branches.

The entire family sprang into action to make sure the area was clear for cars and in preparation for more flooding, using shovels or whatever to clear debris covering a nearby patch of road.

Colón Valdez knows that his house is in the danger zone of flooding and mudslides, but he said he just cannot leave because it would cost too much money. Between rising electric bills and other necessities, he and his family find themselves barely breaking even every month.

The government of Caguas, where they live, has offered them some money for their house, but he refuses to take it because moving to subsidized housing would mean having to get rid of his dogs and dozens of chickens.

Meanwhile, more rain and flooding are forecasted through the end of the week.

Puerto Ricans Rescuing Themselves

The Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management and the National Guard are currently carrying out rescue operations throughout the island in areas that have been most affected by flash flooding. But many Puerto Ricans have had to carry out their own rescue missions in places where the emergency and disaster management agency has yet to arrive.

Such is the case for a family in Cayey whose house was surrounded by water, trapping them inside. Residents of the area arrived on the scene with a dinghy to rescue the inhabitants.

While electricity is gone, telecommunications networks are still up and running, for the most part. The Federal Communications Commission reported that 165 of 2,342 cell antennas were out of service due to Fiona

Cellphone service went down alongside electricity and water when María hit. This time, however, Puerto Ricans have retained their access to the internet, which has been a big relief. Tens of thousands have been able to stay in touch with family members across the archipelago, establishing a basic sense of security and reassurance for many. It has also allowed them to stay up to date with developing emergency alerts.

People have posted hundreds of harrowing messages across social media begging for help from rescue services. It’s in large part because of these posts that emergency rescue personnel have been able to reach a lot of the people in critical need.

“We have the water inside the house the car underwater and everything look like a river everywhere I look,” wrote Carla Rolon Alvarado in Salinas. “The roof is made out of zinc and we can’t climb it. We won’t lose faith but we’re scared. Please come find us[. T]he dogs, the kids, and I are really scared.”

Rolon Alvarado was later rescued.

“We need help,” said Génesis Lían in Cabo Rojo. “We need to leave our house in Playa Salinas urgently. We’ve already called Emergency [services] and nothing. I swear I’m swimming and I’m really very cold[.] I need us to be taken out of here[. T]he beach is literally in the house.”

Hours later she wrote: “They already helped us, a thousand thanks to everyone.”

On Monday, officials reported that 1,300 residents had spent the night in shelters — many arriving before Fiona. One man died from a heart attack in a shelter in Culebra the day before the hurricane hit. Two people have died in Ponce near the El Tuque area, according to Noticias de Ponce.

Prior to the hurricane, President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration in Puerto Rico, allowing emergency aid from FEMA to help with disaster response efforts.

But Puerto Ricans are understandably wary of FEMA’s recovery efforts after its actions in the wake of Hurricane María. While boots-on-the-ground volunteers were at times invaluable in relief efforts, the broader FEMA apparatus left Puerto Rico without the aid it was promised.

FEMA has only given Puerto Rico $40 million of the of the $13.2 billion in federal aid it was obliged to give. The aid itself is reimbursement-based, meaning the Puerto Rican government has to pay for whatever it builds first with its own money — in taxpayer dollars and loans — which is difficult for a country that just exited bankruptcy.

In addition to the lack of recovery funds, the post-María image of possibly millions of water bottles sitting on an airstrip and going unused still weighs heavily on the minds of many Puerto Ricans.

The Disaster Before the Storm

Hurricane María was the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in the 21st century so far, and the deadliest to hit Puerto Rico since San Ciríaco in 1899. It made landfall as a high-end Category 4 storm near Yabucoa early in the morning of September 20, 2017, and rampaged across Puerto Rico for hours before moving on, causing $90 billion in damages and more than 4,000 deaths.

The 155-mile-per-hour winds and torrential rains — nearly 38 inches in Caguas — caused the neglected electrical grid to collapse almost entirely. Most Puerto Ricans would go without electricity for 84 days, without water for 68 days, and without cellphone service for 41 days, on average.

Two weeks before, Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, swept across the north of Puerto Rico. Even though the eye of the storm didn’t make landfall, Irma heavily damaged the electrical grid to the point where more than 80,000 people still did not have electricity when María arrived.

While both hurricanes were incredibly destructive, the havoc they unleashed was only exacerbated by the poor state Puerto Rico was in before the 2017 hurricane season began.

In 1996, the U.S. government began phasing out federal tax subsidies that kept dozens of U.S. corporations in Puerto Rico, causing widespread job loss that sank almost half the population into poverty. In an attempt to make up for lost tax revenue, the Puerto Rican government borrowed from Wall Street brokers and banks until it had accrued more than $72 billion in debt, causing a fiscal crisis that ultimately bankrupted the archipelago.

In 2016, former President Barack Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which established the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (FOMBPR) along with a process for restructuring debt and expediting critical infrastructure projects. The FOMBPR, known as “la Junta” by many Puerto Ricans because of its unilateral control over Puerto Rico’s finances — and thus its government — created a debt restructuring plan that led to Puerto Rico exiting bankruptcy and reduced claims from $33 billion to $7.4 billion.

As good as the FOMBPR’s debt plan has been for banks and Puerto Rico’s creditors, its control has been devastating for working-class and poor Puerto Ricans. The plan has cut funding for dozens of public services, including the education system, hospitals, social services, and public parks, among others. Alongside former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, the FOMBPR pushed for the privatization of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, which brought LUMA Energy to the island. 

A relatively low standard of living imposed by a colonial structure combined with poor emergency preparedness at every level of government caused the enduring humanitarian crisis that Puerto Ricans still experience today. Additionally, a trend of disaster capitalism by private corporations in unison with the FOMBPR’s and the Puerto Rican government’s desire to privatize multiple systems has caused the effects of Hurricane Marí to set the stage for an even bigger disaster down the line.

While Fiona is certainly not worse than María, its aftermath will certainly chip away at the capability of Puerto Rico to respond to a greater natural disaster. The already dilapidated electrical grid, which LUMA Energy has been in charge of repairing and maintaining for more than a year, suffers regular massive blackouts. Flooding not only washes away crops but also erodes the topsoil, so it will be harder to grow crops in affected areas in the future. 

Puerto Rican Power

Many Puerto Ricans have given up hope of seeing improvements to the electrical grid, causing many of the more privileged people to find individual solutions to the blackouts. More than 40,000 households have installed rooftop solar panels that produce around 3.7 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity consumption. The majority of these systems have been installed alongside battery-powered ones so that homeowners can weather being cut off from the wider grid for some time.

The archipelago’s energy production is supposed to be 40 percent renewable by 2026, a goal many have characterized as naïve at best given the little investment in solar energy by both PREPA and LUMA Energy. In cases where there has been investment in solar energy, it has mostly been on solar farms that would still encounter the same problems currently facing transmission, with the further issue that such infrastructure takes away from what little land remains for farming.

Casa Pueblo, a nonprofit focused on ecological conservation and solar energy, has been trying to fix this problem for years in the group’s native Adjuntas in the island’s mountainous interior. Originally started as a cultural center, Casa Pueblo has quietly become one of the most revolutionary projects in the entire archipelago.

“We reached 100 percent energy production from solar a couple months before Hurricane María hit,” founder Alex Massol-González told Latino Rebels in the days before Hurricane Fiona hit.

Operating out of an old house near the town square, Casa Pueblo served as an “energy oasis” for all those who came to them. Because they were powered by solar energy, community members gathered there to charge cell phones and medical devices, like dialysis machines.

The group also handed out chainsaws, mini solar refrigerators for insulin, and more than 14,000 solar-powered lamps to anybody who needed them, and they installed ten emergency solar arrays to power dialysis machines in residents’ homes.

Casa Pueblo Radio, which has been powered by solar since 1999, was able to inform Puerto Ricans about rescue efforts, supply shipments, and news while other radio shows were off the air.

With funding from the Honnold Foundation, Casa Pueblo has powered over 25 businesses, pharmacies, and restaurants throughout Adjuntas so that they can also act as “energy oases” when the electricity goes out again. The group has installed solar power for the local firefighter’s station and medical center so emergency services can respond more effectively.

“During Hurricane María, we went six months without power,” recalled Gustavo Irizarry, owner of Lucy’s Pizza. “I spent $17,000 in diesel to be able to feed the public. I was the only restaurant with power for two weeks in the whole town.”

Lucy’s Pizza is one of the businesses Casa Pueblo has helped energize as part of their Adjuntas Pueblo Solar microgrid project. Irizarry feels confident that his business and others in Adjuntas will be able to care for each other.

He points to the slow response from FEMA in the aftermath of María, when the agency took weeks to arrive in Adjuntas, to explain the surge in solar energy and community organizing.

“Our development is neither public nor private — our development is community-based,” said Massol-González, who also works as a professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. “Puerto Rico is decolonizing itself by producing its own electricity.”

“There’s no space for pessimism,” Massol-González said about the potential of another disaster on the scale of María. “We’re building an alternative country, from the bottom up.”

Adjuntas has experienced historic flooding caused by Hurricane Fiona, with water almost reaching a bridge that was reportedly between 25 and 30 feet high.

Cut off from the electrical grid — as was expected — Casa Pueblo was relying exclusively on solar power stored in its batteries, and its community center has once more become an “energy oasis” in the storm’s aftermath, providing adjunteños with a place to charge phones and receive dialysis treatment

While community resilience organizations are an important piece in recovery efforts from natural disasters, some Puerto Ricans are not so optimistic. Many point to the overlapping crises bearing down on the average Puerto Rican as a sure sign that another hurricane will be the final nail in the coffin.

Protests against LUMA Energy and Gov. Pierluisi’s administration have become weekly occurrences in Old San Juan, in a country slowly being crippled from within and without. In the span of minutes, you could go from hearing the sweet sounds of a trumpet to the buzz of a peaceful demonstration to being rushed to the emergency room because riot police blasted your legs with rubber bullets.

The Collapse Continues

While Puerto Ricans have found ways around the constant power outages, and many are trying to grow enough food to feed themselves in the event that the island is cut off from global supply chains again, there’s one thing they cannot replace on their own: hospitals.

In 2022 alone, more than three hospitals have found themselves plunged into darkness during a blackout. While these hospitals typically have generators for such occasions, overuse and cyclical low voltage have caused generators to malfunction.

One of Puerto Rico’s largest hospitals, Recinto Ciencias Medicas in San Juan, was left without power for almost an entire day. Medical professionals at other hospitals have been forced multiple times to work under a flashlight.

On the island of Vieques, eight miles off the eastern coast, the only hospital was destroyed by Hurricane María five years ago, and the island still does not have anything more than a barebones medical center. Thirteen-year-old Jaideliz Moreno Ventura died in 2020 before she could be airlifted to a hospital on the main island.

While the government has announced plans to build a new $56 million hospital, the only work done so far is the demolition of the remains of the previous one. 

During and after Hurricane Fiona swept through Puerto Rico on Sunday, multiple hospitals were again forced to rely exclusively on generators to provide medical services to their patients. Hospital Universitario in Río Piedras went dark for a time before its generators were restored, but at least six patients had to be transferred from the building housing the Comprehensive Cancer Center to the one housing the Oncological Hospital due to lack of electricity and generator malfunctions.

Puerto Ricans have been forced to be incredibly resilient against a multipronged battering of natural and man-made disasters, but there’s only so much they can take without the necessary resources. They are succeeding in forming small pockets of community where they can deal with common threats. 

Hurricane Fiona is not Hurricane María, but the Puerto Rico of today is not the Puerto Rico of five years ago. Much like María, Fiona has uncovered what was just beneath the surface, proving that Puerto Rico is still in the midst of collapse.


Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is a freelance journalist, mostly focused on civil unrest, extremism, and political corruption. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL