Hurricane Fiona Hit A Puerto Rico Still Recovering From Maria : Consider This from NPR The Federal Emergency Management Agency has allocated billions of dollars to Puerto Rico to help it rebuild from Hurricane Maria with more resilient infrastructure. Five years after the storm, only a tiny fraction of it has been spent, and Hurricane Fiona has again left much of the island in the dark.

NPR's Adrian Florido explains how Fiona has left some Puerto Ricans feeling like their recovery has gone "back to zero."

Sergio Marxuach, with The Center for a New Economy, a Puerto Rican think tank, explains why the island's power grid is so fragile, despite dedicated federal funding to improve it.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

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An Unfinished Recovery From Hurricane Maria Left Puerto Rico Vulnerable to Fiona

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When Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico, Yarimar Bonilla's family was left in the dark.

YARIMAR BONILLA: You know, as all Puerto Ricans say, they're OK, but, you know, OK means that they don't have any water, they don't have any power, and they're not sure when it's going to come back.

SUMMERS: The private electric utility said a significant part of the island would have power back by Wednesday. But as of midday, around a million people were still offline. It was a bit of deja vu. Almost exactly five years ago, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. And that storm killed at least 3,000 people and left parts of the island without power for nearly a year.

BONILLA: Puerto Ricans are - you know, they know how to do this, right? They have their battery-powered radio. They have their gas camping stove and their portable solar lights.

SUMMERS: The thing is, Puerto Rico was supposed to be better prepared this time around. The Federal Emergency Management Agency - FEMA - obligated billions of dollars for recovery efforts, including to rebuild and improve the power grid. But a report from the Government Accountability Office found that only a fraction of that money has actually been spent.


CHRIS CURRIE: Project obligations are not construction. They're not shovels in the ground. In Puerto Rico, FEMA has obligated over $21 billion for public assistance projects - this permanent work I've talked about. However, only 407 million - that's 2% - has actually been spent.

SUMMERS: That's the GAO's Chris Currie testifying before a congressional committee just last week as Fiona churned toward Puerto Rico. His testimony included two photos of a school near the capital, San Juan - one shortly after Maria, and one from earlier this year.


CURRIE: That school now looks worse than it did after Hurricane Maria. To me, the photo tells the story of, you know, the numerous recovery challenges that we faced. And I think it'd be hard to imagine a school in the suburbs of D.C. or another large city that was sitting overgrown and dilapidated for five years.


SUMMERS: Yarimar Bonilla, who you heard from earlier, is the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City. She's followed the response to Hurricane Maria. And she says FEMA overpoliced applications for aid.

BONILLA: A disproportionate number of individuals never received FEMA payments from Maria in the first place to rebuild from Maria. And so we know that there were still people in the blue tarps or people who were never able to really fully repair their homes.

SUMMERS: FEMA has acknowledged failures in its response to Maria. Anne Bink with FEMA's Office for Response and Recovery testified in that same hearing. She said FEMA had changed paperwork requirements so that 100,000 more people were able to receive assistance. And she said the agency was much better prepared for Fiona.


ANNE BINK: Compared to 2017, we now have nine times the water, 10 times the meals and three times the number of generators on island.

SUMMERS: Bonilla says Puerto Ricans are already struggling financially and can't afford a repeat of the response to Maria.

BONILLA: The fact is that the resources that FEMA spends on overpolicing Puerto Rico's applications for aid and creating more and more red tape could have just gone to helping Puerto Ricans.


SUMMERS: CONSIDER THIS - five years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans now have to rebuild all over again. We'll look at how an unfinished recovery left them vulnerable.


SUMMERS: From NPR, I'm Juana Summers. It's Wednesday, September 21.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. To get a sense of the challenges people in Puerto Rico are facing, it helps to see the aftermath of a hurricane up close. NPR's Adrian Florido is there, and as the last bands of Fiona swept over the island, he visited some of the communities that bore the brunt of it. He spoke with my colleague, Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Where are you and what are you seeing?

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: I'm speaking to you from the town of Lajas. It is on the southwestern coast of the island, and it's right around here that Fiona made landfall. And what I'm seeing is a lot of fallen trees and power lines down all over the place, banana and plantain crops destroyed. And of course, I've seen homes whose roofs were either torn off or damaged. I spoke a little while ago with Yesenia Torres as she was inspecting the gaping hole where the roof used to be on an apartment that she built next door to her house.

YESENIA TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She said the wind just kept picking up until it tore the roof right off.

SHAPIRO: With all those downed trees and power lines, is the town just completely in the dark?

FLORIDO: It is. There's not a single home or business that has power here. And that is true, Ari, in most of Puerto Rico still. Puerto Rico's governor says that he's hoping most people will have power again in the next day or two. But I spoke with the mayor of this town where I am now. His name is Jayson Martinez, and he actually was a lineman for Puerto Rico's electric utility company for 14 years. Listen to him.

JAYSON MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He said that here in Lajas, it's going to be two or three months in his estimation before power is fully restored. And as I mentioned, he was a lineman for 14 years, so he knows a thing or two about what it takes to restore power in Puerto Rico.

SHAPIRO: Two to three months is a long time to go without power, even if it's not as long as it took Puerto Rico to fully restore power after Hurricane Maria. How are people feeling about the prospect of going without electricity for that long?

FLORIDO: I mean, you can imagine people are upset. No one wants to be without power for even three hours, let alone three months. But I'm also sensing that people were reluctantly resigned to this being one of the consequences of this storm because the grid is still so weak five years after Hurricane Maria destroyed it.

SHAPIRO: You've done so much reporting from Puerto Rico over the years on the struggle to recover from Hurricane Maria. As you travel around the island, what are you seeing now in terms of - like, has Fiona set those efforts back?

FLORIDO: It has, tragically. And I say tragically because, although the recovery from Maria has been really slow, there has been, nonetheless, some progress in reconstruction projects that have been meaningful to people. The mayor here told me about a community park and baseball diamond that Maria destroyed in 2017, and its reconstruction was finally completed just three weeks ago. And now Fiona came along and knocked over and destroyed, again, the light posts that allow children to play there at night. Here's Mayor Martinez talking about that.

MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He said, it took five years to repair that park, and now it's going - basically, like, going back to zero. And yet, he said, they have no choice but to start working again to repair that park for the community.


SUMMERS: NPR's Adrian Florido in Puerto Rico speaking with my colleague, Ari Shapiro.

Even before Fiona hit Puerto Rico, one of the major challenges to daily life on the island has been regular power outages.


JENNIFFER GONZALEZ-COLON: My constituents are frustrated with the lack of progress, and the biggest symbol is the continued instability of the electrical grid.

SUMMERS: That's Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon speaking at that hearing we mentioned at the top of the episode. She represents Puerto Rico in the U.S. House, though she doesn't get to vote.


GONZALEZ-COLON: They hear about over $4 billion approved for repairs of damage. Almost 10 billion's obligated for permanent rebuilding, but they are still getting frequent interruptions, substations on fire, lines failing. And that's the reality we face in Puerto Rico right now.


SUMMERS: To explain why the electrical grid is still so fragile in Puerto Rico despite all the federal funding lined up after Maria, I spoke with Sergio Marxuach. He's the public policy director at the Center for a New Economy. That's a think tank based in Puerto Rico.

SERGIO MARXUACH: Well, the problem is that once the emergency repairs were done to the system back in 2018, we were supposed to get on with what FEMA calls the permanent work to strengthen and make the grid more resilient, and that hasn't really happened. And there are a lot of factors that had affected that, mostly bureaucratic setbacks, both at the federal level and at the Puerto Rico level. We haven't been able to actually get the process going.

SUMMERS: Now, one thing that has changed after Hurricane Maria is LUMA Energy came in as a private operator. That was last June. How has it performed so far?

MARXUACH: So far, their performance has been below expectations, I would say. I think they probably underestimated the complexity of the task they were undertaking, and they definitely over-promised and have under-delivered. Unfortunately, we're kind of stuck with them for now. We do need to get the power back up after the storm, so - and they're the only operator we have. And it's my belief that the government should review whether or not to continue with this contract after the emergency response is over.

SUMMERS: Puerto Rico's public power authority, known as PREPA, used to be in charge of this whole system, but PREPA is now bankrupt, and LUMA and PREPA keep pointing the finger at each other. Who should be in charge of Puerto Rico's power?

MARXUACH: That is really the problem. The governor of Puerto Rico created that problem by separating transmission and distribution from generation and then having PREPA still own the assets. The - PREPA's still the owner of the grid, but LUMA is the operator. So I would say that a private operator was not necessarily a bad idea in and of itself. If you look at most states, they have both public and private power producers. But so far, they have not been successful.

SUMMERS: I'm curious about how this unreliable power looks for businesses and households on the island. Do you have a sense of scale of the impact?

MARXUACH: As you can imagine, it's a nightmare if you're a small business owner. Imagine that you're the owner of a small convenience store and you need to have power 24/7 so you don't lose ice cream, milk, yogurt, cheese, things like that. So that forces you to have full backup all the time, which is an incredible expense. Same with households - that also forces many homes in Puerto Rico to expend all this money on private generation or putting solar cells on their rooftops, which are very expensive, too.


SUMMERS: Sergio Marxuach is the public policy director at the Center for a New Economy. It's a think tank that's based in Puerto Rico.



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