An analysis and interview with a survivor of Puerto Rico’s most catastrophic storm

As part of Folk Fusion’s mission to help communities that become vulnerable to culture loss due to environmental, political, or socio-economic destruction, it is time to take a look at the beginnings of a longitudinal analysis of the situation on Puerto Rico post-hurricane Maria and what changes, if any, have occurred since the destruction that left many people homeless and migrating off the island to survive.  For some, rebuilding has occurred. For others, not much has changed  in two years and Puerto Rico seems to be struggling with implementing a Disaster strategy that is so appurtenant for anyone living in the Greater Antilles to help increase their chances of survival in future storms.

With the help of the local Hispanic Community Center, I was put in contact with individuals who had lived through the storm and were still dealing with the aftermath.  I conducted oral history interviews in 2018 that have been transcribed and collected and are now part of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program.  The information received from those that survived the storm was incredibly valuable and eye-opening to the emotional and psychological effect the storm had on individuals.  It is time that we go back for further analysis to document any progress on the implementation of a Disaster Plan by continuing support for the community and persisting to put unabating pressure on the government to be ready with a completed plan using a deadline of summer 2020.

The destruction caused by hurricane Maria on September 20, 2017 produced unimaginable destruction to the island of Puerto Rico. This hurricane dethroned the prior 1928 category 5 hurricane, San Felipe, as the most dangerous hurricane to hit Puerto Rico as hurricane Maria, a category 4, would now be the most catastrophic storm to strike Puerto Rico in it’s recorded history.  According to an independent study by George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, it was calculated that the more than 3.3 million people on the island in 2017 had suffered an estimated 2,975 deaths as a direct and indirect result of the hurricane between September 2017 through February 2018.  Puerto Rico’s long history of hurricanes is not surprising since it is a Caribbean island, but what has made hurricane Maria the most destructive is what is most disturbing.

To understand the destruction caused by any hurricane, you must first understand the combining economic, social and political situation that exists. The common denominator in all disasters is the hazard of vulnerability that exists; The higher the vulnerability, the greater the disaster will be.   It is important that we as researchers identify the root cause of this vulnerability and suggest rectifications to help steer governments and communities into corrective directions to alleviate these social vulnerabilities.  I conducted my research at the University of Central Florida using a Forensics Investigations of Disasters approach, known as FORIN, to offer prescriptive solutions on how Puerto Rico should move forward. More comprehensive work is needed to ensure measures of vulnerability are reduced on the island, but for my purposes, I analyzed the leading causes of social vulnerability on the U.S. territory and had the opportunity to complete oral histories with residents to gain greater insight and perspective of the situation.

  Puerto Rico’s historic hurricane past

Puerto Rico’s history of hurricanes dates back to the 1800’s when hurricane San Ciriaco in 1899 would become the deadliest hurricane to strike Puerto Rico as a category 4 with winds up to 140mph causing 3,369 direct deaths on the island. As anthropologist Dr. Susanna Hoffman describes the symbolism of disasters in “The Monster and the Mother”, San Ciriaco was viewed as the wrath of God due to the American occupation of 1898 as 200,000 people would be left homeless and starving as a result of the storm.  Not a very pleasant welcoming committee to greet the new American citizens with!  According to population statistics of the U.S. War Department in 1898, that would make 21% of the 953,243 population homeless on the island.  Decades later, San Filipe of 1928, the only category 5 hurricane to ever hit Puerto Rico, would barrel down on the island, however the resulting death toll would be significantly less containing 312 reported casualties.  The major difference between the San Felipe hurricane and the earlier San Ciriaco was preparedness.  As the 1928 storm neared Puerto Rico, the San Juan Weather Bureau sent out a warning using radio broadcast.  After a 24year reprieve from any major hurricanes, hurricane Santa Clara of 1956 would strike Puerto Rico as a category 1.  Again, the loss of life was significantly lower with only 9 deaths. The minimal loss of life can again be accredited to the preparedness with a hurricane watch and warning system that was implemented days before the hurricane. In 1989, hurricane Hugo would make landfall as a category 3 resulting in 3 deaths, and nearly a decade later in 1998, hurricane Georges would strike as a category 4 resulting in only 8 deaths, however there would be $5 billion in damages.  Things would take a periled turn in the number of casualties during the hurricane season of 2017 when Puerto Rico would experience back to back hurricanes. September 07, 2017, hurricane Irma would brush the northern section of the island as a category 5 but produced only 54mph winds on the island since it was not a direct hit. The storm resulted in 3 indirect deaths but had knocked out power and water supplies for over a million people despite the low-level winds.  Less than two weeks later, an already crippled Puerto Rico would take a direct hit by hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm with 155mph winds. This would be the deadliest storm since the 1899 hurricane and resulted in 2,975 deaths.  There was an estimated $90 billion in damages destroying the totality of the electrical grid and water supplies for most residents leaving people homeless and helpless killing many in the months to come.

From the above historical accounts, it is evident that the island has suffered hurricanes before, but rarely one that paralyzed the island in the way hurricane Maria had.

Major infrastructure failures included the electric grid, communication/cell towers, structure failures of the Guajataca Dam, inoperable hospitals/health systems and schools, as well as private infrastructure ended up destroyed all across the island.

The electric grid on Puerto Rico was not being properly maintained in the months and years prior to the 2017 hurricane season. In an oral history interview I conducted on October 17, 2018 with Guaynabo resident Angel Manuel Rivera Agrinsoni, he stated:

“Before there were hurricanes, there would be power outages occasionally. Anywhere from 3 or 4 times every week…these power systems were obsolete.  They were really outdated and maintenance was almost never given and so we knew it was gonna be a thing where we would be just months and months on end without power”.

To put into perspective, Puerto Rico’s electric grid was so fragile that the 54mph winds of hurricane Irma two weeks before Maria was enough to eliminate power for much of the island.  It would be no match for the 155mph winds of hurricane Maria’s punch. The island would suffer consequences of punctuated entropy brought on by the cumulative impact of periodic disaster events without the capability to recover from one hurricane to the next. Mr. Agrinsoni expressed that he and his family had spent 6 humid months sleeping in his garage after hurricane Maria due to the lack of electricity.  According to the Department of Energy, all 1,569,796 customers would be reported as without power 14 hours after the storm first made landfall. In their statement: “The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is reporting near 100% of total customers in Puerto Rico remain without power, with the exception of facilities running on generators”.

According to an article in the Economist published on October 19, 2017, energy consultants for Synapse Energy in Massachusetts conducted a first ever audit of the power authority PREPA in Puerto Rico a full year before hurricane Maria and found that the power lines had been “cracking, corroding, and collapsing” and that PREPA had been “operating for decades without regulation or oversight” (“The story of Puerto Rico’s power grid”). PREPA was also found to be responsible for $9bn of Puerto Rico’s $73bn debt.

On September 22, the San Juan NWS issued a warning that a crack in the Guajataca Dam required an evacuation of over 70K residence in the NW of the island and required the immediate help from the Army Corp of Engineers. The FCC put out a report on September 27, 2018 that 91% of cell sites were without service (Communications Status Report). According to NOAA, across the island there was total destruction of many wooden houses along with blown off roofs and sunken boats. Mr. Agrinsoni states his home was made of concrete and described it as “hurricane proof”.  Anyone without a concrete house would be left with serious damages. It goes almost without saying that perhaps new building codes need to be put in place to require that all household structures need to be made of concrete.

There was an unsustainability and lack of access to basic needs items.  Most water supplies were inoperable or inaccessible.  Mr. Agrinsoni indicated he was one of the lucky ones that still had tap water.  Many of those in the interior of the island would not have access to water, food or shelter.  Ice was largely in demand and was one of the items Mr. Agrinsoni and his family needed the most since they did not have power:

“We would have to go out and buy ice.  And it was incredibly scarce.  Mainly because of those huge power outages, those companies that sell the ice wouldn’t themselves have power all the time.  And so, the few companies that did survive would have to distribute ice to gas stations, and supermarkets, pretty much primarily gas stations, that’s where everybody would go because everybody had power plants.  So, the lines were monumentally long, and they would go for miles, I’m not kidding”.

There were shortages of generators to keep hospitals functional.  Many would die as a result of lack of electricity.  Little access to gas/diesel for generators made the process an inefficient way to sustain any normalcy on the island. Tarps were in great need for makeshift roofs, however, these would be in short supply and unable to reach Puerto Rico due to laws and policy issues.

The relationship between U.S. and Puerto Rico is a strained and notorious one amounting from a static and unchanging colonial atmosphere dating back to the 1899 hurricane.  Puerto Rico is currently in a debt crisis that it is unable to get out from under. Tough decisions need to be made on this future relationship. For one, this has created delays in transfer of disaster funds of over $4.7 billion in recovery aid after hurricane Maria because the U.S. Treasury disagreed with Puerto Rico over repayment terms. Ultimately, the White House forced an amendment that the already financially crippled Puerto Rico will be responsible for cost overruns, something that no U.S. state has had to do in the wake of a hurricane. Having different rules for Puerto Rico than U.S. states continues to harm the economic infrastructure of Puerto Rico. Within the government of Puerto Rico itself, more oversight is needed to make sure the handling of finances is managed appropriately.

The Jones Act greatly limited the ability of Puerto Ricans to obtain the basic supplies they needed in the days immediately following the hurricane.  The Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be transported by U.S. owned ships and U.S. controlled agencies. Under this kind of control, the cost of consumer goods arriving to Puerto Rico can be higher than in the continental United States. This limits what the Puerto Rican government can do in a disaster crisis. The Jones Act was waived in Texas, Louisiana and Florida following hurricanes Harvey and Irma of the same year as Maria but in Puerto Rico it wasn’t until eight days after the hurricane that the federal government lifted the restrictions. This means Puerto Rico was having to pay a lot more for basic supplies and slowed the recovery process in the critical moments following the hurricane.

Energy monopolies controlling the maintenance of energy supplies also need to be reviewed on the island.  Mr. Agrinsoni in our interview mentioned the high, and often questionable, price for energy.

“Over here, we’re paying 27 and even 30 cents per kilowatt an hour. And that money just went into their pockets and they were doing that for decades”.

This monopoly creates static results in disaster planning due to its proven inability and lack of a fiduciary duties to keeping up the infrastructure to satisfactory levels.  Mr. Agrinsoni is interested in renewable energy but states:

“everybody here knows that clean energy is the way to go forward, but the government is not interested in that”.

It is recommended here that the Jones Act be reviewed and revised for times of disaster as well as offer energy choices, ending the monopoly and increasing standards.

I also recommend in my research the use of new drone technology be utilized in disaster scenarios such as hurricane relief. The company Zipline is currently using drones to deliver blood and medical supplies to remote locations in Rwanda. This is a brilliant use of technology to reach people quickly and efficiently. Many of the deaths caused by hurricane Maria resulted from medical facilities being inoperable from the storm damage. Getting supplies into the hands of health facilities in the moments following the storm are crucial to saving lives and lowering social vulnerability. Using new technology is critical and essential to implementing a successful disaster plan for local communities.

There is a shared responsibility of stakeholders in Puerto Rico that need to work together on a sustainable model to reduce disaster risk and vulnerability.  Self-preparedness and grass roots initiatives of local communities should continue and be encouraged to help assemble disaster plans together with those in Government.  Through research, including the oral history interviews, it has come up again and again the colonial atmosphere that exists between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, a relationship through historical means that seem to be a negative cyclical response through times when the island is in need.  Going forward, long term disaster risk reduction needs to be put in motion starting with an enforceable infrastructure plan including storable energy and concrete houses built to code as well as a disaster plan that involves training of numerous agencies.  According to the recent Excess Mortality Report on hurricane Maria, “at the time of the hurricane, numerous agency communication personnel had not been trained in crisis and emergency risk… nor were they trained regarding their role in disaster”.  This is unacceptable and needs to change immediately.  Appropriate disaster training is essential to the objective of saving lives.  In addition, equality in financial incentives need to be offered to Puerto Ricans in the same way they would be for U.S. mainland citizens of the states, and changes to how policies are reacted to during times of crisis need to be updated to include disaster clauses so that immediate relief efforts can be made on day 1 of a disaster and not on day 8. Renewable energy should seriously be considered in the conversation in disaster risk reduction especially for hospitals and schools because it is high-risk that hurricanes will arise in the future.

Many factors led to the humanitarian crisis that would take place in the aftermath of hurricane Maria. Compartmentalizing key factors using the FORIN approach, there has been an identification of fractures that exists in various modes of infrastructure as well as policy objectives, and economic and political issues that exists. High priority needs to be taken by Puerto Rico and the U.S. to include a disaster plan for the goal of disaster risk reduction and to work towards the goal of lowering social vulnerability for all residents on Puerto Rico.

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