Puerto Rico needs structural solutions: our open letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency

As the people of Puerto Rico face yet another dangerous and preventable power outage in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, it’s increasingly clear that band-aid solutions are unacceptable. Read our open letter to Deanne Criswell, Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Then, take action by sending your own email. 

Dear Administrator Criswell, 

Earlier this week, we watched in horror as Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Fiona and plunged into darkness. Days later, nearly a million Puerto Ricans are still without power. For many — including infants, the elderly, and those with health conditions — outages like this one are dangerous and often life-threatening. 

Puerto Rico is no stranger to catastrophic power outages, which have become part of daily life for many. In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which left some Puerto Ricans without basic necessities for a year, FEMA allocated nearly 10 billion dollars for rebuilding the island’s obsolete electricity system. This funding was an opportunity to create a resilient, fossil-free grid able to withstand disasters like Maria and Fiona — events that were once considered once-in-a-generation, but that are now occurring with tragic frequency, due to our rapidly warming climate.

Instead of jumping at the chance to scale up solar, PREPA, Puerto Rico’s power authority, and LUMA, the private company tasked with transmission and distribution have proposed massive buildout of toxic and expensive harmful gas. These shortsighted investments leave the people of Puerto Rico vulnerable to further outages and footing the disproportionately high bill for unreliable power. They are also in direct opposition to the law. 2017’s Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act mandates that 100% of the Commonwealth’s energy come from renewable resources by 2050. Today, only three percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity is generated from renewables. 

As the agency responsible for administering the island’s relief funds, FEMA has a moral obligation to ensure those funds are invested in the public interest. FEMA also has a responsibility to address ongoing and systemic environmental injustices, rather than exacerbate them. The agency’s Expedited Major Disaster Declaration, which was approved by President Biden on September 21, notably excludes the predominantly Afro-Puerto Rican community of Loíza. Loíza has been historically marginalized due to racist practices and is one of the poorest areas in Puerto Rico with a poverty rate nearing 60 percent of the population. The historical impact of economic and racial marginalization combined with the disaster caused by Hurricane Fiona make aid for the region and its people critical. 

Despite this preventable crisis, there is hope for Puerto Rico to have a just energy transition. Research shows that, with the necessary investments, the Commonwealth’s 100% renewable goal is well within reach. Since Hurricane Maria, grassroots and community leaders have taken matters into their own hands, driving a surge in rooftop solar installations. This week, we saw how solar and battery storage can keep communities safe in times of chaos. 

The people of Puerto Rico need long-term, structural solutions to the disastrous energy system that’s been forced upon them, and it’s clear that localized solar microgrids can be one such solution. We urge FEMA to take full advantage of affordable, accessible solar as a tool for advancing resilience and environmental justice. Further, we ask that you do everything in your authority to hold PREPA and LUMA accountable to their sworn responsibility: providing safe, reliable, and affordable renewable power to the communities they serve. 

With resolve,

Natalia Cardona Sanchez

Chief Access and Equity Officer, Vote Solar

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