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SAN JUAN — Much like Oahu, this crowded Caribbean island depends on one major supply port, a sprawling electrical grid and a week’s journey by barge to the U.S. mainland.
And when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, no one was prepared for the ordeal that followed.
Nine months after the storm, local mayors and officials across Puerto Rico recounted being cut off from outside help. They were left to hold their communities intact as people grew desperate for food, water and fuel.
Federal emergency leaders acknowledged their planning wasn’t fit for the fearsome scale of the Category 4 storm, which tore across the length of the island.
Puerto Rico’s residents, meanwhile, recalled emerging from the worst disaster they’d ever known using machetes and chainsaws to clear the roads of trees and debris. They shared what had overnight become a coveted island commodity — generator power — to keep their neighbors’ food and medicine cool.
Despite those efforts, Maria inflicted $90 billion in damage to a U.S. territory already mired in debt. Its official death toll recently grew to 2,975, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in the nation’s history.
“I hope this never happens to Hawaii,” said Ernesto Irizarry Salvá, the mayor of one of Puerto Rico’s hardest-hit towns, Utuado.
In June, 20 percent of that mountainous enclave remained without power, Salvá reported. Locals living in remote pockets still relied on rain water to cook and clean, the skin on some of their hands flaking and peeling, they said, from bleach tablets used to disinfect that water.
Collectively, residents and public officials across Puerto Rico offered a frank warning to their counterparts on Oahu.
Get ready. And should a powerful hurricane make landfall on your similarly vulnerable island some 6,000 miles away — as Lane nearly did in August — expect the unexpected.
Brace for the worst-case scenario.
“Just like it happened to me, it will happen to you,” said Justo “Tito” Hernández, a FEMA deputy federal coordinating officer who helped lead recovery efforts in the Caribbean.
Nine Months In The Dark
In June, Maria’s effects were visible the instant you reached land. Gazing from the air, blue tarps dotted coastal neighborhoods outside San Juan.
Those tarps and the roofless homes they cover still dot the landscape today.
As the plane touched ground, an elderly woman near the back yelled hoarsely: “Viva Puerto Rico! Mi patria linda!” Long live Puerto Rico, my beautiful country. Passengers burst into applause, their connection to this Caribbean homeland palpable.
Several days later, trucks hired by the island’s beleaguered public utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or “Prepa,” rumbled through the foothills above Yabucoa, the hard-hit eastern region where Maria made landfall. The crews snaked toward homes left without power since the storm hit — nine months and counting. Finally, they would turn the lights back on.
Driving these tight roads is like navigating Tantalus. Power poles thrashed by the storm leaned in different directions. Where poles were missing entirely, the lines drooped near the pavement. Directional signs were torn away. Scrap metal still lay in heaps along the route.
Nine months after Maria, the area’s verdant slopes rivaled the colors of the Koolaus, yet they were littered with bare tree trunks, stripped of their branches and leaves.
Carmen Sanchez, 62, and her ex-husband, Elia Sanchez, 75, live up this way in the hilly neighborhood of Tejas, where they still share a home. It’s a modest cream- and pastel-colored property with a lush flower garden and banana tree. Potted plants decorate the lanai. Jalousie windows let in the breeze.
A generator hummed from a shed next to the house. Two fans plugged into the machine blasted air to help keep it cool amid the heat and humidity.
It was the second generator they’d purchased since Maria; the first broke soon after they bought it. The Sanchezes said they’d spent $2,000 on the generators and $3,000 on the fuel to power them. That’s compared to the $50 monthly electric bills they paid before the storm.
“It’s a lot of difference,” Elia said. But they needed to pay the extra expense to power the refrigerator for Carmen’s medicine. In the days immediately after the storm she kept that medicine at her sister’s home nearby, which already had a generator.
Some 22 workers in Tejas that day aimed to restore power to as many as 50 houses. Other days, they’d only get to a few homes. “It all depends,” a supervisor there said.
As a crew member climbed onto the Sanchezes’ roof to install an electric line, a rung on the ladder he borrowed from them broke, rotted by water damage. He and the ladder tumbled onto Carmen’s lanai, crushing some of her plants.
“Oh, my flowers!” she exclaimed.
A Fragile Grid, The ‘God-Awfullest Terrain’
Prepa faced withering criticism after Maria. The bankrupt public utility had for years neglected to properly maintain Puerto Rico’s transmission lines and power plants, leaving them especially vulnerable to the hurricane’s wrath.
Back in Hawaii, Hawaiian Electric Co. officials were quick to point out that Oahu’s electric grid is in better shape. The local grid, they report, has benefitted from some $828 million invested from 2013 to 2017 to harden its equipment against disaster.
Nonetheless, Oahu and Puerto Rico grids share a similar design. Each generates most electricity on one side of the island, then sends it across steep mountain passes, where some towers are only accessible by helicopter, to the crowded towns and cities on the other side.
“You’ve got to cross mountains that are every bit as rugged as the big mountains on Hawaii, on the Pali Highway,” Prepa’s then-CEO Walter Higgins told Civil Beat in June at the utility’s San Juan headquarters.
“It’s the same kind of environment. It is the God-awfullest terrain to have a transmission line you ever saw,” Higgins said, comparing the two islands. Even after hardening those lines, “you’re still vulnerable. That … needs to get fixed”
Being on islands makes both grids especially vulnerable.
“Puerto Rico is particularly hard — as would be Hawaii — because you don’t just drive down I-95 and start working on lines,” Higgins said, referring to the interstate highway that runs along the East Coast.
“You’ve got to put it on a barge. You’ve got to get it here.”
Higgins would resign from Prepa three weeks after this interview amid a dispute over his compensation, having served just three months on the job. But at that moment, he aimed to assure that Prepa was getting a handle on Puerto Rico’s extended power problems.
The utility had managed to restore power to more than 99 percent of its customers, Higgins said. Those left were in the island’s most hard-to-reach spots say, Utuado and Tejas.
It will cost some $5 billion to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid, then $15 billion to $17 billion more approved by Congress to harden the grid against future storms, Higgins said.
The upgrades will involve more renewable energy closer to San Juan. But the challenge will be getting reliable storage for that power, he said.
After Maria it should take about five to seven years to rebuild Puerto Rico’s grid, he said. In the meantime, vegetation still winds up many transmission lines — a sign of the neglected maintenance.
A ‘Disorienting’ New Normal
Iris Velasquez missed running water the most.
“What can I tell you? We never thought something like this would happen to us,” the retired school teacher, who also lives in the hills of Tejas, told Civil Beat days after her power was finally restored in June.
“We weren’t ready.”
There was no food at the closest store — supplies evaporated almost as soon as they arrived. Locals would wait in line five hours for fuel, and many were turned away when it dried up.
With no electricity, people accidentally started fires in their homes from using candles, Velasquez said. She even burned her kitchen cabinet.
Velasquez lived alone and didn’t have a generator. She started to adapt to the dark. Still, the months without power took their toll.
“Sometimes I felt disoriented,” she recounted. “Psychologically, you can get affected. You have to keep up a good attitude.”
But lack of running water was toughest. For her post-storm advice, Velasquez suggested Hawaii residents clean their roofs in case they had to collect storm water for cooking and bathing.
The rain water felt noticeably different,Velasquez said. She would bathe and feel a film on her skin, like she needed another bath.
Her neighborhood lacked running water for six months until officials finally supplied multiple generators to pump the water up the mountain, she said.
Below those mountains, in Yabucoa, 83-year-old Irma Morales lost her roof in Maria and relied on the cover of a blue tarp. Her home sustained extensive water damage, and the $2,000 in FEMA funding she said she received wasn’t nearly enough to cover the repairs.
Morales didn’t have hurricane insurance prior to the storm — it was too expensive. As of June she didn’t know how she would fund the work. All she knew was that she was in a race against time until the next big storm.
Meanwhile, in the mountains above Utuado, Lissette Miranda Llanes’ hands had started to peel, she said, from dipping them in rain water before the bleach tablets used to purify it had completely dissolved. Nine months on, power there hadn’t been fully restored.
The Push To Protect Drinking Water
In June, getting to parts of La Riviera, in the hills of Corozal, required a climb on foot in the Caribbean sun. The Google Maps navigation app had failed to account for a bridge that had collapsed post-Maria. Locals there knew to take a roundabout route instead.
It lost the bridge, but La Riviera subsequently gained something else to fortify the small community against future storms.
A 48-panel, 14-kilowatt solar-powered water pump, installed by the nongovernmental organization Water Mission, now hums on a terrace tucked below a neighborhood street. It sends drinking water to 62 homes above.
The system is entirely off-grid. The solar panels can be removed before the next hurricane hits, then re-installed hours after the storm passes.
After Maria, Water Mission assessed the site and confirmed the residents would want such a system. Then it provided the initial capital investment of at least $50,000, according to Mark Baker, Water Mission’s program director.
Going forward, La Riviera’s community association must pay for the system’s upkeep. Each home pays a monthly tariff of about $15 to $30, Baker said, which becomes their new water bill.
It’s one of about 50 such solar-powered water systems that Water Mission hopes to install across the island, Baker said.
They’re planned for the spots Prepa often has difficulty reaching. Higgins alluded to such areas in his interview.
“A lot of these customers live in very remote areas. Up the mountain, across the hills, over the valley,” Higgins, Prepa’s then-CEO, said of those still without power in late June. “There could be three houses that we have one mile of wire to get to, and the wire goes over the mountain. So, that’s been a challenge for us.”
Increasingly, Puerto Rico energy officials view such micro-grids not as competition, but rather as ways to restore power more quickly, said Kyle Datta, general partner at the Honolulu-based social investment fund Ulupono Initiative.
“They know it’s going to go down again,” Datta said of the grid. “It’s a whole different perspective.”
Hawaii Looks To Avoid The ‘Chaos’
As poorly as Puerto Rico fared in Maria, the island did catch one huge break: Its main port held up.
Two days after the hurricane passed, the Coast Guard gave the OK to reopen the Port of San Juan, which is Puerto Rico’s Honolulu Harbor.
Still, critical supplies languished at the San Juan docks.
“There was a traffic jam if you were trying to get truck deliveries,” said José Carmona Arcia, spokesman for the Puerto Rico Port Authority. “A lot of roads were blocked by debris. That was a challenge.”
Puerto Rico’s fate would’ve been far worse had its principal harbor been knocked out, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Critical Systems Planner David Lopez said.
Lopez and other Hawaii officials watched the post-Maria response closely.
FEMA conducted what was said to be the nation’s longest-ever domestic air mission to deliver supplies, at 62 days. It distributed more water and meals than ever before. It was nonetheless widely criticized for its slow response to Maria compared to Harvey, the hurricane that deluged Texas about a month prior.
“Our plans of action were not comprehensive to the level of a whole island losing power, losing all the water, losing all communications,” Hernandez, FEMA’s Puerto Rico coordinator told Civil Beat. “I mean, it was basically destroying all the infrastructure, and I don’t think any state is ready for that.”
From Hawaii, Lopez attributed much of Puerto Rico’s demise to “an old-school way of thinking the problem.”
The island’s emergency planners treated the port, the roads, the power grid and other facilities as individual pieces instead of a wholly connected system, he said.
“We feel that had a big effect on their response,” he added. “It was very slow and it showed that their interdependencies, their systems weren’t working together.”
Hawaii started applying this system-wide approach to its emergency planning in 2015, Lopez added.
Since Maria, there’s been better coordination among government and private industry. This summer, HI-EMA formed an “infrastructure branch team” to check which facilities need the most improvement.
“We’re all starting to see things in a bigger picture,” Lopez said.
FEMA’s After-Action Report for the 2017 hurricane season declares that local governments “need to be better prepared with their own supplies … and to be ready for the financial implications of a disaster.”
In August, as Lane closed in on Hawaii, local leaders were adamant. They did not want to see Oahu suffer Puerto Rico’s fate.
“We’ve been preparing for this, we’ll be ready for this, and we’ll be working on the recovery-response mode should the worst occur,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said on Aug. 22.
But three months earlier, Caldwell’s counterparts in Puerto Rico recounted a catastrophe that was completely beyond their grasp.
In Utuado, Salvá compared the first few days after Maria, and its near-total communications blackout, to the island’s Spanish colonial rule several hundred years earlier when messages were delivered in person.
The mayor would drive hours to San Juan, get updates and instructions and return to Utuado. “And then I had to go back to San Juan to give them more information, to bring the new information back to town.”
Meanwhile, in town, “the people in the gas line lost patience and despaired,” Salvá said. “They descended into chaos.”
In June, 800 families in Yabucoa were still living under blue tarps, according to the city’s spokeswoman. Some 135 more people had died in Yabucoa post-Maria than during the same period a year prior, their records showed.
Many of the dead had lacked medication and medical treatment; others succumbed to suicide. Two additional residents had disappeared. Officials there had just launched a suicide-prevention campaign to combat the pervasive hopelessness they observed growing among residents still trying to rebuild.
It was the first week of the new, 2018 hurricane season. Yabucoa’s infrastructure remained in shambles.
“We’re not ready” for the next storm, Rivera said. “We’re trying to recuperate. We’re not prepared.”
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