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What's worse: Hurricane Fiona or LUMA in Puerto Rico?

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From Saturday to Monday, Puerto Rico endured torrential rains with catastrophic floods. Many families lost everything. Yet, untimely ongoing problems are caused not by rain or winds but by a company that seems to excel at not delivering electricity.  

Let's compare the damage done by nature with the damage done by that company, LUMA Energy LLC.

Consider nature first: While Fiona was considered a Category 1 hurricane, winds whipped trees and buildings with speeds of up to 103 miles per hour when it hit Puerto Rico, according to the National Weather Service. But unlike Hurricane Maria, five years ago, the main crises caused presently by Hurricane Fiona pertain not to destructive winds but to floods. More than 1,000 people have been evacuated or rescued by emergency personnel. Roughly 1,200 people are still in shelters. Throughout the island, the damages to agriculture are enormous. Plantations of various crops were wiped out: 90 percent of plantain and bananas were destroyed. The cumulative rainwater varied by location, ranging from 5 inches to a disastrous 35 inches of rainwater. For example, the municipality of San Lorenzo was flooded with 29 inches.  

To explain, bear in mind that just one inch of rainwater consists of 17.38 million gallons per square mile. So, San Lorenzo alone, consisting of 53 square miles, was pummeled by billions of gallons of water.

I was there, just one day prior, at the Hacienda Muñoz coffee plantation. There and elsewhere, countless ripe coffee beans were washed away. As the rainwater reached down to a river in San Lorenzo its water level grew by 30 feet in some points and wrecked the concrete Bridge of La Marina, which had withstood every disaster since it was built in 1918.  

Now consider the electrical situation. By no means do I expect that the outages of electricity caused by Hurricane Fiona will be as gruesome as those caused by Hurricane Maria. That's because Maria struck Puerto Rico as a high-end Category 4 hurricane, with winds reaching 155 miles per hour: It was the most intense tropical cyclone worldwide that year, knocking down or severely damaging more than 45,000 utility poles (as high as 90 feet tall) and 6,500 miles of electrical cables.

Hurricane Maria caused the utter collapse of Puerto Rico's power grid and the worst electrical blackout ever in the United States — one of the longest blackouts in the history of our planet. One month after Maria, 88 percent of the island remained without electrical power. Even after four months, roughly 450,000 households still had no electricity.  

Now, five years later, with Hurricane Fiona, there was no such collapse of tens of thousands of utility poles, since Fiona was only a Category 1 storm. However, LUMA Energy — the privatized electric company tasked with improving the island's energy reliability —failed to deliver electricity to 100 percent of the population: all 3 million people. Even hospitals lost electricity.

Also, since many water pumps need public electricity to operate, four days after the hurricane, more than 600,000 households remain without tap water. More than 60 percent of the of the population still doesn't have electricity.  

LUMA has repeatedly failed to distribute electricity. In 2020, the government of Puerto Rico contracted the management of its power grid to this secretive company. In June 2021, almost 1 million households lost electricity. In April 2022, half the population on the island lost electricity. Restaurant chains sued for $310 million in losses.

Last month, even more blackouts happened, leading to public protests, with people yelling: "LUMA go to hell!" They dumped their damaged home appliances outside LUMA offices.  

On the mainland United States, whenever there is a blackout the average time to restore electricity is one hour and 20 minutes. However, In Puerto Rico, operating under its old power authority, the time to restore power to customers used to be far worse at 2.5 hours. More recently, under LUMA, the average time to restore power to Puerto Ricans became grotesquely worse at 5.4 hours. Plus, LUMA implements outages, which are not even included in such calculations. For customers, unexpected outages can damage equipment, even those essential for hospitals and businesses. 

Since LUMA constantly fails to deliver electricity, many people buy portable generators to power their lights and refrigerators. So, this hurricane weekend, some people were burned or killed when trying to operate their own generators. Others were poisoned or killed by breathing the fumes of their portable generators.

The famous Puerto Rican singer Bad Bunny, who is an outspoken critic of the island's poor energy management, also has complained, "I do tours all over the world … The only place where I have to use about 15 industrial generators when I'm going to perform is here, because I can't trust Puerto Rico's electrical system."

He too, yelled, "LUMA go to hell." His song about the blackouts, "El Apagón," rightly criticizes the price of electricity that has been raised seven times in 2022. In Puerto Rico, the cost of electricity is more than double the U.S. national average. 

So, now New York's Attorney General sent a sterling letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, urging them to investigate LUMA for the "frequent and lengthy outages" that it have been inflicted on the people of Puerto Rico. This includes disruptions to schools, hospitals, courts and businesses — especially during this awful hurricane crisis, the days when people most need electricity.     

In April, the CEO of Quanta Services, one of LUMA's parent companies, admitted, "We have made mistakes. We recognize our faults." He added, "I'm not asking for forgiveness or patience. I am out of both myself."

The solution is obvious: either Puerto Rico's government or the federal government should evict LUMA from Puerto Rico.  

Alberto A. Martinez is a professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin.

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