Puerto Rico Nervously Prepares for Hurricane Season
Posted May 14, 2018 6:52 p.m. EDT
LAS PIEDRAS, Puerto Rico — Nearly eight months after Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico and ravaged its frail power grid, the Army Corps of Engineers, which was charged with restoring the island’s electricity, will hand off its mission and depart on Friday. Thousands of Puerto Ricans will still be in the dark.
On June 1, a new hurricane season will begin. And Puerto Ricans, who are struggling to recover from Maria, fear they will not be ready.
“What if another one comes? We’re very worried,” Migdalia Díaz, 64, said from her home in Las Piedras, a town of about 38,000 in eastern Puerto Rico where about a quarter of residents are still without power.
A blue tarp covers her leaky roof. Díaz lives with her son, Kevin Cabrera, 22, who has Down syndrome and is sensitive to the heat. She has been relying on two generators, a solar-powered battery charger and a hot plate. Once the Corps of Engineers leaves, restoring power will be up to the local power agency, and many residents are skeptical.
“Emotionally, we are not well. I’ve spent the seven months since the hurricane taking sleeping pills,” Díaz said. “We look like we’re from that show ‘The Walking Dead.'”
The crucial question is whether Puerto Rico’s power grid can withstand even a minor storm. The answer is probably not: A fallen tree recently knocked out power to the San Juan metropolitan area. A week later, an excavator got too close to a high-voltage line, and the entire island was plunged into darkness.
The local utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, is “not ready for a new hurricane season,” Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, the commonwealth’s nonvoting member of Congress, told a local radio station.
Officials insist they are better positioned to respond to a hurricane — if nothing else, because the memory of Maria is still fresh.
“We do learn,” said Mike Byrne, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s relief work in Puerto Rico. “We take our lumps, and we learn from them.”
There is reason for skepticism: Local emergency managers are still meeting with key members of the private sector, like fuel distributors, to hash out hurricane plans. The worst of the Atlantic hurricane season does not usually hit the Caribbean until August and September; officials insist they will finish their preparations by then.
For the first time, Puerto Rican residents will be asked to be prepared to fend for themselves for 10 days after a storm, up from three. Even that might not be enough, officials acknowledge; meals are still being delivered to residents of remote mountain towns.
Puerto Rico does have more emergency supplies on hand than it did before Maria, which hit just two weeks after Hurricane Irma. Though Irma only brushed Puerto Rico, it ripped through the U.S. Virgin Islands — prompting FEMA officials to send the bulk of the hurricane relief supplies in the agency’s Puerto Rico warehouse to the island’s stricken neighbors.
“So when Maria hit Puerto Rico, tarps and plastic sheeting, we had none,” said Reinaldo Colón, supervisor of FEMA’s distribution center for the Caribbean, a large warehouse on the outskirts of San Juan. Forty-eight generators had been shipped to St. Thomas, leaving 25 available.
Now, the warehouse, rehabbed after taking on water during Maria, is brimming with boxes encased in plastic. Shelves are stocked with 100,000 tarps, according to FEMA, more than the 13,000 available at the start of the 2017 hurricane season. There are 3.6 million meals ready to eat, compared with 500,000 last year; 5.4 million liters of water compared with 800,000; nearly twice as many blankets — 10,000, compared with 6,000 — and 130 high-capacity generators.
FEMA has also rented four warehouses on the island and plans to keep 67 recovery centers open throughout hurricane season. More than 2,800 FEMA employees remain in Puerto Rico, ready to help if another disaster strikes.
“Because the infrastructure is so fragile, we’re being overly cautious,” Byrne said. For the first time, Puerto Rico’s emergency management agency has also secured its own regional warehouses, the agency’s interim commissioner, Carlos Acevedo, said.
This month, the federal and local agencies plan a series of exercises to test their emergency response plans. One exercise will simulate a mass-casualty catastrophe at hospitals. After Maria, major health centers did not have working generators or fuel to power them.
Federal and local officials say all hospitals now have adequate generators and, in some cases, solar power and energy storage batteries to kick in during a power loss. The 800 high-capacity generators that FEMA distributed after Maria, many of which went to hospitals, will remain during hurricane season, said Alejandro De La Campa, director of FEMA’s Caribbean area division.
“That’s unheard-of,” he said. “In some cases, like hospitals, they are backup to the backup.”
Another exercise, in mid-June, will simulate a full-scale disaster: Federal and local teams will practice setting up an emergency operations center at the San Juan convention center. Crews will load supplies from the FEMA warehouse onto trucks and deliver them to municipalities.
Typically, at the end of dry runs, the supplies return to the warehouse. This time, FEMA will leave some commodities with local mayors, to provide a modicum of early support, Byrne said.
By the end of May, Puerto Rico plans to equip all hospitals, urgent care centers, fire stations and police stations with radio systems, Acevedo said. By June or July, all municipalities should have satellite phones. A communications blackout after Maria delayed aid because officials did not know the extent of the devastation.
About 15 percent of private telecommunications providers continue to operate on generators, said Sandra Torres, president of Puerto Rico’s telecommunications regulator. But, she added, more fiber-optic cable has been installed underground since Maria — including, for the first time, near Puerto Rico’s hard-hit central mountain town of Utuado — and providers have invested in more generators to keep cellphone towers running.
Storm debris is still being hauled away from 26 municipalities but should be completed by mid-June, FEMA officials said. Local officials are also receiving training to better handle emergencies.
Still, the governor acknowledged that saving money to pay for a catastrophe remains a challenge for his strapped government, whose bankrupt finances have been overseen by a federal control board since 2016.
“The limitation we had with Maria is we had no cash to burn,” said the governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló.
Emergency managers and business leaders also are concerned about the logistics of getting aid into Puerto Rico. Maria created a bottleneck at the Port of San Juan, which slowed everything from food to electrical poles.
“What am I most worried about?” Byrne said. “A ship sinks in the channel in San Juan, and we can’t bring anything.”
Manuel Reyes Alfonso, executive vice president of MIDA, the island’s food industry association, said wholesale and retail businesses continued to experience delays in receiving cargo. “We are not where we’d like to be, or where we should be,” he said.
He worries about a trucker shortage and about slow fuel delivery for generators. Puerto Rico had fuel after Maria, but no easy way to get it to people, leading to endless lines at gas stations and a black market for diesel sales. FEMA had to bring in a fuel barge for its operations.
Food could also be scarce again, Reyes said, because Puerto Rico continues to impose a tax on inventories. Eliminating the tax could increase food stores to an average of 37 days from 26, according to a survey that the food association conducted of its members in February. A legislative effort to do away with the tax has stalled, Reyes said, in part because lawmakers have yet to figure out how to make up for the lost revenue.
Rodrigo Masses, president of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association, said he had advised businesses to double their fuel storage capacity, keep their generators in shape and designate an emergency contact off the island to relay information in the event cellphone service fails again.
“We’re still not out of the crisis. If we’re hit by another hurricane like this one, we’re going to lose power again. We’re going to lose connectivity again,” he warned. “But the private sector is going to be much better prepared.”
Once the Corps of Engineers departs, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as Prepa, will be tasked with completing unfinished repairs to the power grid. At a hearing last week of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in Washington, lawmakers sounded skeptical that Prepa, which has come under fierce scrutiny over its early response to the storm, is up to the job. González-Colón has asked FEMA to extend the Corps’ stay.
“We sure want to know that you really are ready,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told Prepa’s new chief, Walter Higgins, at the hearing.
“We feel that we are ready,” Higgins said. But, he added, “I don’t doubt that we will have some growing pains.”
In Las Piedras, which sits on the hills south of El Yunque National Forest, people who have electricity say it goes out often. “If a little bit of wind blows through, we will lose power,” said Roberto Rosado, 53, who still has metal shutters on his sliding doors. “We just lost power now. This is an everyday occurrence.” Mayor Miguel López, who is known as Micky, recently blocked two of the three power crews from leaving his town. “There was no other option,” said López, whose unorthodox strategy succeeded in keeping the linemen at work.
His director of emergency management, Xavier Muñoz, said the one upside of Maria was that it had scared residents into taking hurricane plans seriously.
“Shelters are going to get full,” he predicted. “I have 220 cots right now, and I think that’s not going to be enough.”