Puerto Rico's vulnerability to hurricanes is magnified by weak government and bureaucratic roadblocks

Five years after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona has killed at least four people, caused widespread flooding and left hundreds of thousands of residents without water or power. Maria caused extensive damage to Puerto Rico’s power grid in 2017 that left many residents without electricity for months. Rebuilding it has been hampered by technical, political and financial challenges.

Carlos A. Suárez and Fernando Tormos-Aponte are social scientists who study Latin American politics and environmental justice. They explain some of the factors that have hindered efforts to recover from Maria and prepare for subsequent storms on this island with a population of 3.2 million people.

Failed promises from privatization

Carlos A. Suárez Carrasquillo, Associate Instructional Professor, Political Science, Center for Latin American Studies, University of Florida

In less than a century, Puerto Rico’s electricity system has gone full circle from private provision of electric power to a state-led effort to democratize access to power, and then back to a public-private partnership with a strong neoliberal ethos. Yet Puerto Ricans still face daily challenges in obtaining affordable and efficient electricity services.

When the island’s electric power system was created in the late 1800s, private companies initially produced and sold electricity. During the New Deal era in the 1930s, the government took over this role. People came to see electric power as a patrimonio, or birthright, that the government would provide, at times by subsidizing power for lower-income residents.

In the 1940s, Puerto Rico launched Operation Bootstrap, a rapid industrialization program that sought to attract foreign investments in industries such as textiles and petrochemicals. One important element was reliable and cheap electricity, provided by the state through the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, a public corporation known in English as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA.