As the Hurricane Season Intensifies, Is Puerto Rico Ready?


Perhaps the most emblematic image of Puerto Rico’s encounter with Tropical Storm Isaías last week was one of a National Guard soldier carrying a young boy on his back through Barrio Sábalo in the western town of Mayagüez, rescuing him from a rising torrent of brown water from nearby Caño (Canal) Majagual. That area, as well as Barrio Buenaventura, vulnerable to Rio Hondo and other smaller streams of water, was among the most visible recipients of Isaías’s heavy downpours as the storm swept the region on Thursday.

“It had been raining here all week,” said Ian Seda-Irizarry, a John Jay College economics professor who has roots in Mayagüez and has been visiting with family since May. “The ground was saturated with water, and the storm caused landslides. Fallen trees and electrical posts were strewn on the ground.” Hundreds of thousands of people, and 23 hospitals, were left without power in the wake of the storm. The littering of electrical transmission cables and posts recall the disastrous landscape following 2017’s Hurricane María, and for many around the island, they triggered memories of a very difficult recent past.

Just three days before Isaías hit, Thomas Van Essen, the regional administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wrote Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vásquez a letter informing her that in FEMA’s opinion her government “is not prepared nor has the ability to respond and manage a major event.” Citing a variety of reasons ranging from lack of emergency staffing to funding, communications, and planning, Von Essen’s revelations were not a surprise to most Puerto Ricans, who in early July learned that the governor was to be investigated by an independent prosecutor over an alleged mismanagement of supplies following January’s series of earthquakes.

Even though Vásquez—a reluctant governor who took office after last summer’s “people’s removal” of scandal-ridden Ricardo Rosselló through a quirk in succession rules—is an easy target, there are clearly many factors at work that keep Puerto Rico vulnerable to climate-crisis-induced devastation. “It doesn’t surprise us that FEMA would come out and say something like this, but at the same time, I don’t want to place the entire blame on the Puerto Rico government,” said Deepak Lamba Nieves, research director of the San Juan–based Center for the New Economy.


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