Puerto Rico Needs More Than Bandages

Puerto Rico Needs More Than Bandages

(February 12, 2018 – The New York Times – by Mekela Panditharatne) – Four months after Puerto Rico was battered by Hurricane Maria, Congress last week approved more badly needed emergency assistance, including $2 billion to repair the island’s severely damaged power grid.  An additional $9 billion will be directed to recovery and restoration projects in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The expectation is that this aid will help provide relief not only to the hundreds of thousands of utility customers in Puerto Rico who are still without power but also to te more than three million islanders as a whole, who are still being warned to boil water before drinking it.  But the money from Washing falls far short from the island’s requirements.

Puerto Rico needs more than bandages.  It needs to rethink and redesign its electric, water and wastewater systems, both to protect them against the next big storm and to provide the dependable service they were failing to give residents before Hurricane Maria.  To accomplish that and other rebuilding needs, Puerto Rico had sought $94.4 billion in total disaster aid in November.  That included nearly $18 billion to rebuild the power grid – nine times what Congress has provided.

Achieving resiliency in the face of powerful storms will require the wholesale rebuilding of the island’s utilities.  Simply patching them up will not be enough.  If that’s the extend of the fix, the island is likely to find itself back in the same place after the next big storm, with taxpayers asked to spend new billions on more life preservers.

Even before Hurricane Maria, decades of disinvestment had left Puerto Rico’s energy grid and water and wastewater systems particularly vulnerable to hurricanes.

Among its many problems, a storm-damaged dam is putting 70,000 people downstream at risk, and the island’s water system is old and leaky; about half of the water conveyed by its pipes disappears.  These leaks make the system vulnerable to contamination by microbes in the ground and water – a problem worsened by hurricane-induced pressure loss.

And, of course, when the power goes off, water and sewage treatment systems are shut down.  Millions of gallons of untreated sewage and contaminated water were released after the hurricane.  Even today, Puerto Ricans remain at risk of bacterial contamination in their water.

Before the storm hit, Puerto Rico had the worst drinking water quality of any state or territory in the nation.  Nearly 70 percent of the island’s water customers received their tap water from systems that were found to have unlawfully high levels of contaminants like coliform bacteria, volatile organic compounds and harmful byproducts of disinfection, or that were not treated their water in accord with federal standards.

The island’s largest utility, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, which operates water and wastewater systems, was under several court-enforced agreements to end sewage discharges from degraded wastewater plants that violated the Clean Water Act.  Making matters worse, the Environmentally Protection Agency cut off funds to the utility because it was unable to repay earlier loans.

Before Hurricane Maria, the island’s water and wastewater utility said that it would need to invest $2.4 billion over the next decade to fix these longstanding issues.  That number would be higher now: Puerto Rico’s government has said that a majority of its water and wastewater treatment infrastructure was damaged by the hurricane.

The island’s brittle electricity grid provides another lesson in disaster mitigation.  Before Hurricane Maria, the grid was prone to blackouts.  Puerto Ricans experienced power failures four to five times more often than did the average utility customer elsewhere in the United States.  Transmission lines cutting across the island’s mountain regions often failed.  In 2016, a fire shut down the entire grid for three days.  Even when it worked, electricity was expensive.

Investment in renewables like solar power and improving energy efficiency would increase Puerto Rico’s resiliency.  The use of microgrids that combine solar power and battery storage could significantly cut fuel consumption and help hospitals, water treatment plants and schools keep working in the weather-induced blackouts.  Such microgrids would also provide more reliable power to isolate communities.

Whether or not a plan announced recently by the island’s governor to privatize Puerto Rico’s energy utility is carried through, the funds set aside by Congress for the island’s power grid will still allow Puerto Rico to release this latest federal money to private utilities for resilient, sustainable rebuilding.

Scientists point to the possible contribution of climate change to Maria’s intense rainfall – as well as to the rainfall of Harvey and Irma, its predecessor hurricanes.  The Caribbean is already seeing changes in land and ocean temperatures that mimic global climate trends.  The mass movement of Puerto Ricans to the mainland after last fall’s hurricanes may provide one of the first examples of a large-scale migration in the Americas.

It’s no surprise that Hurricane Maria wreaked the havoc that it did in Puerto Rico.  The island’s fragile infrastructure was ripe for a clobbering.  These lessons shouldn’t need to be learned twice.