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Biden Promises Puerto Rico $60M for Hurricane Fiona. Will U.S. Repeat Mistakes After Hurricane Maria?

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We go to Puerto Rico to look at how the island is recovering from Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 storm that left much of the island without electricity and clean water. President Biden has promised a $60 million relief package, but some doubt the aid will be distributed swiftly and in a manner that will truly protect the island from future storms, given the failed U.S. response after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Less than 3% of infrastructure money allocated for storm recovery after Maria has actually been used, says Carla Minet, executive director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico. She also discusses how problems have arisen from the transition to a privatized electrical grid.

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StorySep 19, 2022Blackout in Puerto Rico: Whole Island Loses Power Amid Hurricane Fiona as Privatized Grid Collapses
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

President Biden’s visit to Florida today comes after he visited Puerto Rico Monday, two weeks after Hurricane Fiona collapsed the island’s electrical grid with high winds, storm surge and heavy flooding. Biden pledged disaster relief as he spoke from the Port of Ponce on Puerto Rico’s southern coast, which faced significant storm damage.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We’re going to make sure you get every single dollar promised. And I’m determined to help Puerto Rico build faster than in the past and stronger and better prepared for the future. … We know that the climate crisis and more extreme weather are going to continue to hit this island and hit the United States overall. And as we rebuild, we have to ensure that we build it to last. We’re particularly focused on the power grid.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, President Biden was speaking in Ponce, where Juan González was born. Well, Biden’s trip to Puerto Rico comes five years to the day after then-President Donald Trump tossed paper towels to survivors of Hurricane Maria when he visited Puerto Rico after the Category 5 storm plunged much of the island into darkness for nearly a year.

For more, we’re going to San Juan to speak with Carla Minet, the executive director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico.

Carla, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain the extent of the damage. This is now two weeks after. I mean, clearly, Biden could not go to Florida without going to Puerto Rico, which is still bearing the brunt of the previous storm.

CARLA MINET: Yes. Well, it was extensive damage, particularly because of the floodings in the south part of the island and because of the huge problems that we’ve been having with the electrical grid, that have clearly not been addressed since Hurricane Maria. Actually, the official number from the government is that 10% of — 20% of the population is still having problems with electricity. But lots of people and communities are saying that they are not getting power back, so there’s no clear account about that number right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Carla, I wanted to ask you — when this hurricane hit Puerto Rico, it was just a Category 1 storm, not with the power of Maria or Irma or some of these others. How is it possible that the entire grid, once again, of the island went down? And what’s been the role of the private company that the U.S. government forced Puerto Rico to take on in replacing the publicly owned utility that existed back in the days before Maria?

CARLA MINET: Yes. Basically, the electric grid has not been repaired. Basically, less than 3% of the infrastructure money that was awarded after Hurricane Maria has been used for infrastructure five years after Maria. The process of privatization of the generation part of the electricity company has been a huge problem. There’s a lot of problems that have arisen from that transition. And this company, LUMA Energy, has been reported that has a lot of conflicts of interest in Puerto Rico, hiring its own partners for different tasks that are supposed to repair the grid and are not being done correctly.

So, I guess there was a perfect storm in terms of the electric grid. No money from Maria has been used. A new privatization company who’s not from Puerto Rico and doesn’t have the amount of employees it needs to respond to an emergency like this one. They don’t even know the ground here in Puerto Rico. So, all those things together are a big problem, especially for people in the rural areas and for electricity-dependent populations, people who need medical machines to live, which is a big population in Puerto Rico.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — it’s been now six years since a financial control board was put imposed by Congress on Puerto Rico. It has always made all of these predictions about how the economy of the island and the government budget will be fixed. But [Natalie] Jaresko, who was the — for most of this time, the CEO of the control board, she’s the Ukrainian American who actually came to Puerto Rico after being the finance minister — people forget this — in the Ukraine. After the Maidan Revolution, she took over the finances of Ukraine, and then she came to Puerto Rico. She resigned in April. Has there been any change in the policies of the PROMESA board since Jaresko left?

CARLA MINET: None that I’ve learned from since Natalie Jaresko went. No appointment has been made. There is no list of people, that have been public, being considered for the position. And, no, the fiscal control board has kept its austerity policies from then on, and also its lack of transparency policies. As a matter of fact, yesterday, U.S. Supreme Court, you know, said that they would take a case that we are — in which we are — CPI is asking for public documents from six years ago. And they got the certiorari, so they are going to hear the case in the next month to see if the control board has to deliver the documents that they have exchanged with the government of Puerto Rico, which is what we have been asking for. So, their transparency policy is in the same place.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Carla Minet, we want to thank you so much for being with us, executive director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, speaking to us from San Juan.

Next up, mass protests in Haiti approach their third month demanding the resignation of the U.S.-backed prime minister, condemning rising fuel prices. We’ll go to Port-au-Prince. Stay with us.

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