150 Days Without Power: Why We Failed Puerto Rico

Revee Needham, Maroon-News Staff

We all burden the weight of responsibility when it comes to Puerto Rico. How is it 343,000 Americans are without power (as of February 14th) 150+ days after Hurricane Maria hit? I believe it is due to a collection of unjust, racist and ignorant systems (U.S. Department of Energy). Yes, Puerto Ricans are Americans, and as such, should be afforded the same rights as you and me. But they are not and here is the short explanation as to why.

Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico last September as a category 4 hurricane. Hurricane Irma hit Florida, in the mainland U.S., shortly beforehand, as a weaker storm system. But that’s where the similarities end and the differences in preparation and response begin. Florida was able to restore power to its residents in a matter of weeks. Currently, Puerto Ricans are suffering through the longest blackout in U.S. history. Clearly, electricity is imperative to the recovery efforts, as well as daily life, for hygienic purposes, cooking and more. 

Before the storms hit, Puerto Rico and Florida did not have the same capacity to recover, disregarding the abysmal response afterwards. Puerto Rico’s power supply was inconsistent to begin with, and the government was burdened with millions of dollars of debt. Before Irma hit, crews in Florida were ready and waiting to move in as soon as possible to restore energy. Puerto Rico was not afforded the same treatment. Then, the contract to repair the energy grid was given to Whitefish Energy, a company with only two employees, which was later cancelled due to lack of action and sky-high prices. The contract by FEMA to provide 30 million meals yielded only 50,000 before that contract was revoked, too. The grant given by Congress to repair Puerto Rico’s energy grid was $2 billion, a staggering $15 billion short of what is needed to create a resilient grid, able to withstand future storms. For comparison purposes, $2.3 billion was awarded to assist the recovery of the Florida citrus industry. Another hindrance is the presence of the Jones Act. The Act stipulates that only U.S.-built ships can transport between U.S. ports, which limits the recovery process on the island. While it was waived in response to Hurricane Maria, 10 days was not nearly long enough to make a difference (New York Times). While I could go on, the exact details of errors in the recovery are not as important as the bigger picture. 

Is Hurricane Maria alone in its disastrous impacts? Unfortunately, no. You’ve heard about the water crisis in Flint and the Dakota Access Pipeline, now let me introduce you to a new term: Environmental Justice. Environmental Justice is a movement, framework and class that I took at Colgate. In short, it strives to end the disproportionate distribution of environmental “bads” and environmental “goods” across marginalized groups. It asserts, that everyone, regardless of race, income and gender, among other marginalizing variables, should have access to healthy places to live, work and play. What is happening in Puerto Rico would never happen here, a wealthy, predominantly white university. Natural disasters do not discriminate and occur throughout the world but the not-so-natural part is that social and political systems do discriminate and yield differential responses, hence why Floridians have power and Puerto Ricans do not. Those whose voices have been silenced are those hardest hit by storms and will continue to suffer with the impacts of climate change. Climate change, with increasing ocean temperatures, is predicted to lead to more hurricanes. With its vulnerable energy infrastructure, among other problems, Puerto Rico is not able to withstand another Hurricane Maria. Yet, it’s more likely than not that this crisis will repeat itself. 

What can you do? You should contact your elected officials to express your disappointment and anger, and demand better for your fellow Americans. If you’re big on social media, use your influence for good: share the pleas of Puerto Ricans and inform your social network of other environmental injustices. If you’re not a second-semester senior, you can sign up to take the class Environmental Justice (ENST 232). But don’t stop there – there are Hurricane Marias, Flint Michigans and DAPL spills happening every day, all over the world. Don’t fall trap to the Colgate “bubble” and rely on the media gatekeepers to cover other people’s plights equally. Pay attention to the news and prepare yourself to learn about the ever-horrifying impacts of climate change, and our equally pitiful social and political systems that are increasingly inept at coping with them. 

Contact Revee Needham at [email protected]