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Locals knew how to fix the infrastructure problems extreme weather revealed, but their hands were tied.
This story was originally published by the Slate and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
The most tragic aspect of this week’s catastrophe in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Fiona has wrecked infrastructure and knocked out electricity for millions of residents, may be that solutions for protecting the island and its population from extreme-weather events like this have been known for years—and none of them have been implemented.
The island commonwealth has long been a victim of its territorial status. In 2016, responding to a debt crisis primarily forced upon Puerto Rico by outside companies and creditors, the United States government imposed a financial oversight board on the island to push for spending cuts and other austerity measures—thus hobbling its ability to recover from the fallout from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, including the longest blackout in US history.
In the years since, Puerto Ricans have made clear their desires to use already-delegated emergency funds to expand renewable energy sources like rooftop solar, to do something about the influx of crypto nomads who are sucking up energy with mining rigs and driving up the cost of living, to reverse the privatization of their grid (which has led, ironically, to monthly blackouts), and to scrap the financial oversight board. Yet local and federal government has paid little heed; after Maria, the US delegated billions of dollars to bolster Puerto Rican climate resiliency, but not even one-fifth of that money was actually spent.
By the time Fiona landed on Sunday—around the fifth anniversary of Maria—poorly equipped Puerto Ricans lost their electricity and water sources again, although the small portion of island homes powered by solar panels and battery storage were able to retain electric supply. This storm was nowhere near as massive as Maria, yet the island still wasn’t sufficiently prepared. “The sad part is that we knew a lot of this would happen,” one local activist told Politico.
Although the commonwealth is a particular case, it’s not the only current example we have of government failing to act on knowledge it had well in advance to protect its citizens from repeated natural disasters. Just look to Jackson, Mississippi. As I wrote last year, the monthlong water crisis that hit the city in early 2021 starkly exposed the factors that made the state so vulnerable to climate damages, and pointed to what needed to be done: deep fixes to ancient and weak pipes and roads, adequate staffing for as well as winterization of water facilities, additional financial support for the city.
Neither the state nor city government addressed any of this with any urgency, and now the past has repeated itself. Last year, harsh winter storms knocked out Jackson’s water treatment facilities and obstructed roads and relief systems; in August of this year, floods overwhelmed the water plants and kicked off a series of debacles, contaminating residents’ water supply. There had been time to prevent this, but shockingly little was done. The state government only threw its capital city $3 million for water fixes after the council requested $47 million, then blocked city plans to relieve citizens’ debts and to raise more money through sales tax increases.
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