Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico for only 48 hours. Yet, it left a long-lasting humanitarian crisis behind. Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, with winds of over 155 mph and floods reaching 15 feet in depth. The storm caused the longest power blackout in history by destroying Puerto Rico’s main power grid. The storm directly took the lives of many people. But, the blackout led to thousands of deaths that could have been prevented.
The main power grid was doomed a year before Hurricane Maria devastated the main island of Puerto Rico. A 3-day-long blackout struck the main island in 2016 as a result of a preventable fire to the power grid. This was due to a long history of poor maintenance and untrained staff. The blackout left citizens suffering in tropical heat without air conditioning. Those who did not have generators were seen dragging their mattresses outside to sleep, having to fend off mosquitoes. Cases of carbon monoxide poisoning were reported amongst some citizens that owned generators. At least one case resulted in death.
Power was restored to the main island after the 3-day-long blackout, but neglect of the grid continued. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was advised to replace the power grid before a worse event occurred, but they failed to listen. Then Hurricane Maria hit. It destroyed the neglected power grid. Once again it left many parts of Puerto Rico without power for 11 months.
The blackout caused by Hurricane Maria left Puerto Ricans isolated from food, water, shelter, and essential healthcare. This forced citizens to live in unsanitary conditions, unable to access life-sustaining medical supplies. Unsanitary conditions caused many illnesses that required medical treatment, but people were unable to seek help. The hospitals were either destroyed, ran out of fuel to run their generators, or lacked medical supplies. Lack of fuel and medical supplies forced staff to only treat patients based on the severity of their health condition.
Health conditions that were able to be controlled before the blackout were no longer controllable. Citizens were unable to use refrigerators needed to store life-sustaining medications such as insulin. Others were unable to power their respirators or dialysis equipment. Many doctors in Puerto Rico reported the unsanitary conditions and lack of power killed many patients that would have otherwise survived.
Supplies rapidly began to run out, worsening the conditions of Puerto Rico. Citizens continuously asked the US government for humanitarian aid. Efforts were heard, but the response was slow and inadequate. The US Congress awarded Puerto Rico with $42.7 billion in relief funds to aid in repairing the $90-$120 billion in damages caused by Maria. As of today, Puerto Rico only had access to under $20 billion of those funds. It was reported that around 3,000 deaths could have been prevented with an adequate humanitarian response and timely repair of the energy grid.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority then contracted with a company called LUMA Energy in June 2021. The contract was signed in an effort to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power supply. LUMA promised to cut power costs and deliver stable, reliable power. Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico in September 2022, damaging the main power grid again. Since LUMA was contracted, many citizens reported their power turning on and off daily. LUMA raised energy costs by 17.1% and made little impact on the reliability of Puerto Rico’s power. Hurricane Fiona was only a category 1 storm but led to another territory-wide blackout. This occurred even under LUMA’s promise of reliable and affordable energy. Weeks after Fiona, thousands are still without power. Fiona caused minimum damage compared to Maria. Yet, citizens are left facing the humanitarian crisis they experienced with Hurricane Maria.