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Blackout in Puerto Rico: Whole Island Loses Power Amid Hurricane Fiona as Privatized Grid Collapses

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More than 1.5 million people are in the dark after Hurricane Fiona knocked the power out across all of Puerto Rico Sunday, triggering floods and landslides. We go to San Juan for an update from Democracy Now! correspondent Juan Carlos Dávila, who describes how privatization of the island’s electrical grid coupled with a legacy of U.S. colonialism “has really caused the crisis.” We also speak with former San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as President Biden has declared a national emergency and federal aid pours in. “The distribution has to be robust and has to be people-centered and community-centered,” notes Cruz.

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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.

We begin today’s show in Puerto Rico, where more than 1.4 million residents remain without power after Hurricane Fiona brought 100-mile-an-hour winds and up to 30 inches of rain to parts of the island. On Sunday, Fiona’s eye roared across the island’s southwestern coast, triggering flash floods and landslides, washing away at least one major bridge. The governor, Pedro Pierluisi, described the damage as “catastrophic.”

Fiona hit just two days before the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands of people, devastated Puerto Rico’s electrical grid. This time the island-wide blackout reportedly happened before Hurricane Fiona made landfall. Puerto Rico’s power company, LUMA, blamed the bad weather and high winds and vowed to restore power sooner than it did after Hurricane Maria, when thousands went for months without electricity. Some of the few homes and businesses that have power now are running on rooftop solar power or using generators.

President Biden has approved an emergency declaration. The situation could worsen today, as the National Hurricane Center says parts of Puerto Rico could see 25 inches of rain. Meanwhile, Hurricane [Fiona] is also set to cause major rain and mudslides as it moved on to the Dominican Republic.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Carmen Yulín Cruz is the former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. She’s joining us from Massachusetts, where she’s the Weissman fellow at Mount Holyoke College. And in San Juan, we begin in Puerto Rico. We’re joined by Juan Carlos Dávila, filmmaker, Democracy Now! correspondent.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Juan Carlos, let’s begin with you. Can you describe where you are, how you’re even talking to us, how you even have power, when the whole island is out?

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: Yeah. Hello, Amy. Thanks for having me again on the show.

The little power that I have is because I’ve been preparing for this kind of situation to continue doing my work, my journalistic work. So, what I do is that I have a system, an inverter system that I connect into the car so I can plug in the necessary and the essential electronics to continue doing my work. But, you know, it’s just for a couple of hours or something ’til I need to go back and charge again.

And like myself, you know, many people have, throughout these last five years, found different ways to cope with the situation, because we know that we cannot rely on the national electric grid, that is now privatized, and that people need to find many ways to come up with solutions to deal with their immediate necessities. But the real problem we are seeing or the real situation is that it is a very — it is very unequal, really, because the people who have more power and more money have been able to install solar panels, have been able to disconnect from the grid, and, meanwhile, the people who are poor and the working class have been left off with this electrical system that basically doesn’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, and for people to be clear — and I also made the mistake of saying “Irma” at some point — this is Hurricane Fiona, but, of course, it is so reminiscent of what happened five years ago with Maria and also with Hurricane Irma. Now the hurricane has moved on to Dominican Republic, which doesn’t mean the devastation of Puerto Rico is over, by any means, especially with information cut off from the inner parts of the island. But, Juan Carlos, if you can talk about the fact that this — the energy, the electricity went out before — talk more about that — the island was even hit on Sunday?

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: Yes. So, one of the — you know, Puerto Rico really is a very complicated electrical system. One of the main issues is the weather, right? So, really, when the distribution of the energy company was under PREPA, and the people who managed the electrical grid were the workers from the UTIER, you know, whenever there was rain or bad weather, things would get solved very quickly. But in this sense, and this is something that we have been experiencing for more than a year now, since LUMA started operating last year in 2021, is that whenever there’s like just a very small, bad wind or bad weather, very — or bad weather for just a couple of hours or even minutes, then just the system collapses very quickly, and then the problem is that the rebuilding takes so much longer.

So, it has to be that, really, the problem is that ever since the beginning, even when the — before the storm started, LUMA did not have the personnel ready to deal with this kind of situation. But it happens on a weekly, daily basis for many communities, that people just experiment that. So, whether it was related to the hurricane or not, it could have been any wind gust or something that created that just before doing — before Hurricane Fiona really made landfall.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, when I was with you, Juan Carlos, in Puerto Rico after Maria, if you remember, we were sleeping in this house that was dark completely, no electricity, after the storm. And next to us was a fully electrified bed and breakfast, because they were using solar power on the roof. Talk about the use of solar power right now in dealing with Fiona.

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: So, I think if you might even look at this, at these six years, you know, you will see that Puerto Rico is an advanced country that is moving to solar. But what is happening is that, really, there’s the industry of solar panels, you know, is profiting from all of these disasters that is happening in Puerto Rico. So, there’s a solar panel industry being driven by disaster capitalism.

And the big issue, like I was mentioning earlier, is that the solutions have become and transformed very unequal. People who have the power, the privilege and the money have been able to disconnect from the grid to solve this kind of situation. And this is really what — and you see it, and it’s very disgusting even seeing like the ads in Puerto Rico. Like, it is — we are really normalizing the situation, but in that normalization, what is happening is that the people who can’t afford it are the people who can’t deal when such event happens.

And it is something that the government, it is promoting. It is not only promoting the privatization throughout the electrical grid, but it’s also promoting all these industries of solar panels, rather than really find a way to develop a more community-oriented solution to solar panels like community microgrids. This is something that the group Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas and other organizations, with a proposal called Queremos Sol — other environment organizations are putting forward a new plan for the country to deal with this, which is based on rooftop solar, but rooftop solar connected through communities with community microgrids. But this is not what happened. The solution has become individualized.

And the problem is going to continue, because what is going to happen is that the prices for electricity are going to continue increasing for regular people and for the majority of the country. And these people, like myself, who are not disconnected from the grid are going to be — are not going. We are right now paying a very expensive, the highest in the United States when it comes to in relationship to our income, the biggest — the highest energy bills with the worst, really, energy system.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Carlos, I want to bring into this conversation Carmen Yulín Cruz. She’s the former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Now she’s Weissman fellow at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts. It’s great to have you with us, Yulín. I can’t help but, you know, go back five years to the images of you chest high in water as you were trying to help people, with President Trump coming down to Puerto Rico hurling paper towels at the people who had come to see him. Your thoughts on how far, or not how far, Puerto Rico has come today?

CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Well, what we are seeing, Amy, is tragedy unravel once again. And we’re seeing it again in front of our eyes. Puerto Rico is what happens when climate change goes wrong. But it can also be, like Juan Carlos was mentioning, an example of what can happen when solutions are put into place that put people at the community level and the disenfranchised first. Not only rich people are putting solar panels; people are going into considerable debt in order to have one or two panels in their homes to be able to deal with ailing family members, people that need respirators.

But another thing that is important is that in Puerto Rico, when there is no power, no electrical power — because we have no power as a colony of the U.S. — but when there’s no electrical power, there’s also no water services. So, right now about 750,000 people have no water services in Puerto Rico, this because water needs to be pumped up to the taller parts of Puerto Rico, and without the electrical energy, that does not happen. But Puerto Rican people have been told by the Puerto Rican government that there were generators in all of these water treatment plants, and the plants have made sure that the water gets to the different places. Now, as you saw five years ago almost to the day — tomorrow will be the anniversary of the horrendous Maria — what happens is that now people start not having clean water, and they start washing dishes in the creeks and in the rivers. And, of course, that gives way to another wave of crisis. So, this hurricane is a crisis that begets another crisis, and would be the health crisis, the leptospirosis, people getting sick from not having the appropriate drinking water.

So, the Biden administration here has an opportunity — and thankful that the president declared a state of emergency, but I think the Biden administration has an opportunity to show the world what the goal is, is not one life lost, not one. As you mentioned, with Maria, close to 4,000 people lost their lives, because bureaucracy and inefficiency were the guiding principle, that the aid was weaponized.

What needs to happen here, in my opinion, as number one, is send the aid directly to all 78 municipalities. It doesn’t matter. And in the municipalities, where other political parties, like Victoria Ciudadana, Proyecto Dignidad, El Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, have members in the municipal legislatures, make them also be part of the distribution of aid. That distribution has to be robust and has to be people-centered and community-centered, meaning not only give the aid to the government at the municipal level, but also give it to religious organizations and to community organizations, that know exactly where each one of the people are and how much do they need.

And the third thing, I think, of the utmost importance, is everyone must be deployed, you know, whether it’s people from different electrical authorities within the U.S., must be deployed immediately, as soon as the winds subside, with one goal, to lift up the electrical grid in Puerto Rico and to make sure that from now on, when we rebuild — and this is embarrassing. Last week, it was mentioned in Congress that out of 9 billion — with a “B” — dollars that had been allocated for the reconstruction of the grid, only $40 million have been used. So, Congress has to make FEMA accountable and has to make LUMA accountable.

A plan has to be set forth, a blueprint for reconstruction and transformation of the system, making sure that resources are made available like they are in Massachusetts, where the state pays for you to change completely to have your home completely solarized. But that needs to happen, and the accountability needs to be very, very transparent for everyone to see. LUMA just said this morning 100,000 people have gotten their electrical power back, but we don’t know where. We know the towns; we don’t know the sectors. This needs to be detailed information, so that the people of Puerto Rico also become not only people that are surviving, but also people that hold their entities accountable for not making the disaster worse than nature has already made.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Juan Carlos, what’s expected right now? The island, it’s said, the people may be in the dark for days, maybe weeks, once again. Your final thoughts?

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: I think, really, what we are seeing right now is really how effective is going to be this LUMA contract. And really, it’s the first time that it’s really been put to the test. This is a Category 1 hurricane. You know, in Puerto Rico we have had many storms like this in the past. And it is very difficult to see how, in a hurricane that is not as powerful as Hurricane Maria, it has collapsed the entire country, because when the national grid like this of electricity collapses, it really collapses the entire country. So, we are really right now going to really know how bad the contract is and how unfit the company, LUMA, it is to provide electrical service to the people of Puerto Rico.

And one more thing that I want to add is that, you know, the United States can be sending to Puerto Rico aid right now. But to really think about the long-term solutions in Puerto Rico, we have to address colonialism. And colonialism in Puerto Rico is right now embodied through the figure of the fiscal control board imposed by the United States Congress. And this fiscal control board has been the one responsible for cutting public funding and cutting a lot of sources to the people of Puerto Rico. The austerity put forward and the neoliberal project of the fiscal control board, that includes the privatization of the electrical grid and gives the contract to a company that really doesn’t know how to handle the electrical grid in Puerto Rico, it has created the crisis, because, really, the agencies, the government agencies of Puerto Rico, do not have the resources to deal with this as they could have done decades ago. The problem right now is that also the people of Puerto Rico, the agencies of Puerto Rico do not come with the resources. And the reason, the main reason why they don’t come with the resources, is that the U.S. Congress has put forward a fiscal control board that has imposed austerity measures in Puerto Rico, and that has eliminated a lot of funding for agencies to deal with this type of situation. So this problem is really tied to colonialism. And the resources that we don’t have are simply in order to pay an illegal debt to Wall Street bondholders.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this developing story, Juan Carlos Dávila, filmmaker, Democracy Now! correspondent, speaking to us from San Juan. The entire island of Puerto Rico is in the dark. Carmen Yulín Cruz, former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, now at Mount Holyoke College in Western Mass.

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