Following the devastation of Hurricane Fiona and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will oversee federal involvement in Puerto Rico’s economic recovery. Its recent projects, including a substantial initiative to expand affordable, solar-powered energy grids, represent a newfound willingness by the US federal government to improve socioeconomic conditions in Puerto Rico. These efforts build upon its emergency response to Hurricane Maria in 2017, which totaled $30 billion. However, a recent lawsuit by a coalition of nine advocacy groups reflects growing doubts over FEMA’s competency and legitimacy as a governing body intended to include Puerto Rican perspectives. Now engulfed in controversy, FEMA faces intense pressure to reform its long-term strategies as Puerto Rico’s economic and environmental sustainability remains at risk.
This dispute over FEMA’s role comes after the federal agency received heavy criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria. After this natural disaster left 3.7 million without electricity, FEMA mobilized medical services, food relief, and humanitarian assistance in Puerto Rico. However, an internal report in 2018 revealed various reasons why FEMA’s mission was unsuccessful. Worryingly, the agency was allegedly unprepared for hurricane season, as its last disaster planning assessment was in 2012, and it only stocked 695 of the required 2,000 energy generators. Additionally, FEMA suffered from serious communication issues, as 95% of wireless cell towers in the territory did not function properly. Furthermore, FEMA failed to relay information from a 2011 preparedness study that revealed the need for “extensive federal support in moving commodities,” later undermining collaboration between FEMA and other aid organizations. FEMA’s mishandling of the Hurricane Maria crisis illustrates its flawed management, communication, and resource deployment in Puerto Rico.
To resolve these mistakes, FEMA seeks to employ major aid projects in the territory for its recovery after Hurricane Fiona. Importantly, the federal agency plans to rebuild Puerto Rico’s energy grid by establishing portable generators, which provide 600 to 700 megawatts of electricity. FEMA will fund 90% of the installation costs, which is a drastic improvement compared to the federal government’s 50% funding of other joint initiatives such as the Nutrition Assistance Program. Furthermore, FEMA will supply engineering services to facilitate the implementation of these electricity generators, which is crucial to improve energy affordability and accessibility as Puerto Ricans pay twice as much as mainland American citizens.
Nonetheless, many groups in Puerto Rico criticized FEMA for its emergency recovery process. Notably, the Center for Biological Diversity and eight other community organizations sued the federal agency in April due to environmental concerns. The lawsuit claims that FEMA’s restoration of Puerto Rico’s energy grid will exacerbate long-term fossil fuel dependence, citing the US Department of Energy study PR100. According to this coalition, FEMA’s electric barges and generators are vulnerable to natural disasters and thus hinder the sustainability of the territory’s energy economy. Furthermore, the advocacy coalition accuses FEMA of undermining Puerto Rico’s plan to reach 40% renewables by 2025 under the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act. Despite these allegations, Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Pierluisi continues to support FEMA. At the recent New York PRNow 2023 conference, where business leaders met to discuss Puerto Rico’s financial future, Pierluisi dismissed concerns regarding FEMA’s policies. Instead, Pierluisi praised FEMA for approving 70 power grid projects and offering $6.5 billion for the territory’s reconstruction. This substantial investment reinforces earlier green energy projects as FEMA collaborates with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. For instance, in March, FEMA launched Phase 1 of a plan to incorporate solar microgrids in the territory’s energy system. Diverting $10.2 million from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, the completion of Phase 1 will guarantee reliable, renewable energy for 9,000 Puerto Ricans. Pierluisi applauded not just FEMA’s robust funding but also its commitment to sustainable, climate-conscientious development, which he said will “ensure the resiliency that… residents in these islands need.”