Even before rain lashed Puerto Rico starting Sunday, unleashing devastating floods, a perfect storm of ill will, decrepit infrastructure, red tape and official ineptitude had enfeebled the island’s defenses and left it ripe for a knockout blow. Hurricane Fiona delivered it.
The effect was visible Monday, after Fiona had finished with Puerto Rico. The island’s power grid was crippled; 1.5 million had lost electricity; many were without water; and some rural communities were cut off. On Tuesday, more than 1 million people remained without power.
Maria had left 3,000 people dead, along with a grim tableau of wrecked homes and businesses. That was a moment for Washington to act with all due speed to relieve and rebuild. Instead, Puerto Ricans were subjected to the belittling spectacle of President Donald Trump tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd in Guaynabo, a suburb of San Juan.
That cavalier gesture was an apt symbol of the chaotic response to come. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers bickered. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was effective in the weeks right after the storm, but then things bogged down. As Mr. Trump labeled Puerto Rico as corrupt, federal officials attached onerous conditions to releasing the extensive aid that Congress had approved.
Critically, the job of remaking the island’s power grid — converting it into an up-to-date system hardened to withstand further storms — stalled as billions of dollars in aid from FEMA arrived too slowly. A U.S.-Canadian private consortium, called Luma Energy, took over the job of modernizing the electricity system last year and has since failed miserably. Puerto Ricans have been living with routine blackouts; practically every household that can afford a private generator has one.
Recognizing that the island is hobbled by a decades-old power grid prone to chronic failure, Congress allocated about $12 billion to overhaul it, the biggest allocation of funds to FEMA in the agency’s history. But Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, has not been up to the job; the utility is bankrupt, and efforts to restructure its $9 billion debt have failed.
The Biden administration cut red tape and unlocked funds, to no discernible effect. It needs to do more to ensure that the past, and the present, do not become prologue for episodic storm disasters. One place to start would be to revive the position of special representative for Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery, established in the Trump administration’s final year and subsequently abolished when President Biden took office. An overseer who can corral the bureaucracy and manage a massive problem would help — and should signal a renewed commitment to aiding an island packed with U.S. citizens.
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