Southern Puerto Ricans Hung Out to Dry by Government Response to Hurricane Fiona

Sep 23, 2022
1:42 PM

A fallen palm tree lays on top of a house in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. (Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco/Latino Rebels)

CABO ROJO, Puerto Rico — Since Hurricane Fiona swept over Puerto Rico on Sunday, residents along the southern coast have seen little state or federal aid in their communities, forcing them to survive mostly on their own.

“There’s a reality that the government is totally absent,” history teacher, podcaster, and municipal legislator Guarionex Padilla Martí told Latino Rebels in front of an old wooden hovel on the beach in Joyuda, a fishing village in the southwestern municipality of Cabo Rojo where he lives with his parents.

Joyuda is less than 15 miles from Punta Tocòn on the southern coast, where the eye of Fiona passed directly over. Padilla Martí’s family has not had electricity or water since Sunday. He and his father were just getting back to the house after sheltering from Hurricane Fiona with other family members.

Joyuda was hit particularly hard by the hurricane. While his house did not flood, other houses in the neighborhood were crushed by fallen trees and completely flooded by the torrential rains.

The road leading up to his house was flooded with about a foot of water, forcing most families returning to the neighborhood to take an alternate route. Joyuda was still mostly empty as most were still staying somewhere else, fearing the last few days of heavy rain that typically follow hurricanes.

Hurricane Fiona made landfall at 3:30 p.m. as Category 1 storm on Sunday, entering at Punta Tocón on the border between Cabo Rojo and Lajas before passing through Cabo Rojo and making its way over the Mona Passage toward the Dominican Republic.

The storm brought unprecedented amounts of rain to multiple areas of Puerto Rico, characterized as “catastrophic” by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who declared a state of emergency before the hurricane landed. Flash flood warnings were issued that remained in effect well into Monday. The Río Grande de Loíza on the northern coast, Puerto Rico’s largest river by volume, swelled to six times its normal size.

Eight deaths in Puerto Rico have been attributed to Hurricane Fiona, currently a Category 4 storm heading toward Bermuda.

Remembering the government’s response to Hurricane María five years before, Joyuda residents knew they would mostly be left to their own devices for a long period of time. Padilla Martí’s neighbor, Papote, had slowly made his way through the neighborhood with his excavator to clear the road of fallen trees, electrical poles, and other debris. Trees sawn in half by community members littered the roadsides, while leaning electrical poles and fallen wires loomed over the main street.

“We have two Puerto Ricos,” Padilla Martí said when describing the discrepancy in government responses between southern areas like Cabo Rojo and metro areas like San Juan.

President Joseph Biden approved an Expedited Major Disaster Declaration for 55 municipalities at Gov. Pierluisi’s request late Wednesday. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to offer individual assistance up to $700 to those affected by the hurricane. The aid is in addition to the public assistance guaranteed to 78 municipalities by President Biden’s original emergency declaration.

The list was immediately criticized online because it failed to include many southern and western municipalities, where the eye of the hurricane passed over directly, plus Loíza, known by Puerto Ricans as the center of Afro-Puerto Rican culture. Meanwhile, municipalities like San Juan and the well-to-do Guaynabo, which were relatively unharmed, were on the list.

“The government sees the metro area as the center of the universe and forgets about the rest,” Puerto Rico Para Todes president Pedro Julio Serrano said from Boquerón in the southwestern part of Cabo Rojo.

Southern Puerto Rico, where lack of maintenance has allowed ivy to turn many electrical poles completely green, has not only endured both Hurricane Fiona and Hurricane María —which made landfall in the southeast in September 2017— but also a series of earthquakes beginning in late December 2019 earthquakes, which devastated much of the infrastructure in the region.

In an interview with CBS Morning News correspondent David Begnaud, Gov. Pierluisi claimed that he had not yet received data from the municipalities on the west coast to include them in the petition. Gov. Pierluisi also claimed that “FEMA draws the line at 10 or more inches of rain” when declaring major disasters.

Parts of Cabo Rojo, Lajas, and Hormigueros received more than 10 inches of rain according to the National Weather Service.

Hormigueros and two other municipalities have since been added to the Expedited Major Disaster Declaration list, bringing the list up to 58. The mayors of Lajas and Cabo Rojo are confident they will be included on the list once they are able to transmit the necessary data.

Serrano, Puerto Rico Para Todes’ president, commends the responses of mayors throughout the southwest of Puerto Rico, while condemning their lack of resources to truly help their constituents.

“What is empathy worth if you do not have the resources,” Serrano said.

He is currently in the midst of organizing a community center to distribute medicine, food, and other types of aid to the people of Cabo Rojo. He believes that community aid is going to reach the people before government aid in a lot of places in the south, due to the “political disaster” caused by a rivalry between Puerto Rico’s two ruling parties, the New Progressive Party (PNP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD).

There is currently a campaign spreading through social media urging people to avoid donating to government entities and instead donate directly to communities in need or the organizations helping those communities directly. The campaign was started by Puerto Ricans who still remember the 16 million bottles of water and other undistributed aid that were left to rot by FEMA and the Puerto Rican government.

“Our town, with one of the largest populations of elderly adults on the island, has found itself without electricity because LUMA Energy has not given the authorization to energize it,” Utuado mayor Jorge A. Perez said in a statement. “As a PREPA supervisor for more than 20 years, I assure you that Utuado is ready to be energized.”

Lajas mayor Jason Martínez Maldonado, who worked for PREPA for 15 years, is convinced it will take up to three months for the electrical crisis in his municipality to stabilize. He claims that he has not seen LUMA Energy brigades in Lajas in the five days after Hurricane Fiona hit.

Residents of Cabo Rojo, Hormigueros, and Sabana Grande agree somewhat with the timeline set by Mayor Martinez Maldonado for their own municipalities. Given their experience with previous blackouts, most agree they will get electricity back in October, at the earliest.

The Acacias substation in Cabo Rojo, which supplies power to much of southern Puerto Rico, was almost completely submerged by the flooding caused by Hurricane Fiona. It is a common occurrence, according to residents of Hormigueros, since the substation was built right up against the Río Guanajibo.

“Two light rains and it’s gone,” one Hormigueros resident told Latino Rebels.

While LUMA has claimed that the substation remains flooded, only the roads leading up to it were still completely underwater on Wednesday. Dead vegetation lined the perimeter fence at waist height, creating a makeshift water marker. A line pruning crew contracted by LUMA got their truck stuck in the water while traveling through the area had to be hauled out by a passerby in a pickup truck. The road was largely inaccessible for any vehicles other than municipal excavators and National Guard MRAPs.

LUMA Energy, the Canadian-U.S. consortium that privatized distribution, maintenance, and repair of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid in 2021, did not immediately respond to Latino Rebel’s request for comment.

Municipal aid is the only help that Jonathan Pérez Vargas’ family has seen since he lost everything when his house flooded after Fiona’s strong winds ripped the zinc roof off. He has since covered the roof of his house with a blue tarp he picked up from the municipal government.

Pérez Vargas is not eligible for the $700 in individual assistance from FEMA.

“Sadly, we lost everything in our home. But the important thing is that we still have our lives,” Pérez Vargas said while standing in front of all his now-ruined belongings piled into a heap on the cub. His family spent 16 hours bailing water from his second-floor home so that it would not flood his parents’ home beneath them.

Pérez Vargas claims they have not seen emergency management personnel or LUMA Energy workers in the neighborhood, though there are several fallen electrical poles near his home. Still, he maintains that “they have done a very good job” given the circumstances.

Many community members experienced with cutting down trees have done their part to clear the neighborhoods around them. Pérez Vargas community has also been a “blessing” to his family, giving them clothes and food to replace what they lost. He remains hopeful that they will get the necessary aid from the federal government to rebuild.

For now, most of the southwest of Puerto Rico is slowly trying to rebuild itself by itself, attempting to fill in the gaps left by the government with community resilience.

Serrano’s community aid center will open Monday after being forced to move because of damages from Fiona. Many roadways are now passable because community members have been chopping down trees nonstop.

But many wonder if there is a world where they do not have to be the ones doing it by themselves.

“There’s no light, no water, no internet. One feels like they live in a country where nothing works,” Padilla Martí said.

Gov. Pierluisi and FEMA have not responded to Latino Rebels’ requests for comment.


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