What Puerto Rico Wants Most


President Joe Biden lately visited Puerto Rico and Florida in an effort to reassure the folks there that the U.S. authorities would assist them within the aftermath of Hurricanes Fiona and Ian. However a key distinction between these two locations—Puerto Rico is a “commonwealth” and Florida is a state—means every faces a really totally different path to restoration.

Days after Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico, the author Jaquira Díaz flew again to her residence to test on her household and see the storm’s devastation. In our November 2022 difficulty, Díaz makes the case for Puerto Rican sovereignty. On this episode of Radio Atlantic, she talks about how the hurricane’s affect doesn’t change her thoughts about wanting an independent Puerto Rico, even when the island requires immense assist to recuperate. Robinson Meyer, writer of The Atlantic’s Weekly Planet publication, additionally talks in regards to the island’s electrical infrastructure and what stands in the best way of Puerto Rico modernizing its energy grid.


The next transcript has been edited for size and readability.

Claudine Ebeid: You’re listening to Radio Atlantic. I’m Claudine Ebeid. Greater than two weeks in the past, Hurricane Fiona hit the island of Puerto Rico. This week, President Biden visited the commonwealth, pledging cash and promising to revive the island’s fragile energy grid.

Many Puerto Ricans have but to recuperate from Hurricane Maria, which hit 5 years in the past, calling into query how rapidly restoration can really occur. Jaquira Díaz writes for The Atlantic. Her most up-to-date article is “Puerto Rico Needs Independence, Not Statehood.” And she or he joins us right now on Radio Atlantic. Jaquira, thanks for speaking with us.

Jaquira Díaz: Thanks a lot for having me on the present.

Ebeid: You already know, Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico greater than two weeks in the past. You flew in there shortly after. So inform me just a little bit about what you noticed.

Díaz: One of many explanation why I flew into Puerto Rico proper after Hurricane Fiona is as a result of I’ve household there. And during Hurricane Maria, we misplaced contact with loads of our household, however particularly my uncle who lives now in Yabucoa and who’s older. We didn’t hear something about him for weeks and weeks. And I simply thought this time I can’t simply sit round and watch for him to get in contact. And so I’m simply going to get on a flight and go and attempt to assist and care for my household.

Throughout Hurricane Maria, I felt so helpless watching the whole lot on the information from the States. And I additionally didn’t know whether or not or not the assistance, like containers of provides, that I used to be sending have been really going to get to my folks. And so I believed, I’m simply going to go.

I flew within the Thursday after Hurricane Fiona. I flew in at evening. And as quickly as we’re approaching Isla Verde, the place the airport is, I’m Puerto Rico from the sky at midnight and seeing that the whole lot is darkish aside from San Juan, aside from the motels and casinos, the lights. And it’s nearly as if the hurricane occurred to the remainder of the archipelago and never San Juan. I used to be within the sky near tears, pondering there are vacationers there now. There are folks, rich folks, foreigners and People who get tax breaks and use Puerto Rico as a tax haven. And so they’re not affected.

They’ve energy they usually have water they usually’re partying. And there’s a live performance taking place proper now, whereas I don’t know if my household is alive, how they’re surviving. And so it type of crammed me with rage and unhappiness as a result of it looks like … I imply, throughout Maria, all of us noticed the lack of response from the Trump administration, the deliberate blocking of aid funds. After which 5 years later, it looks like, you already know, the rich individuals are nonetheless partying whereas the poor and the aged and the individuals who dwell in rural cities are struggling and are ignored.

As soon as I landed, I used to be privileged sufficient that I stayed in a resort, that I might afford to remain in a resort and that I had energy and water. And I rented a automobile and I drove to Yabucoa to see my uncle. He was the primary particular person I went to test on. He’s a priest, and he was working the parish workplace on a small generator with out air-conditioning, with out water, and nonetheless there as a result of he felt like he wanted to point out up for his folks.

Ebeid: What are you able to inform me about how a lot—possibly even particularly the place your uncle was residing—how a lot the folks that have been residing there have been nonetheless coping with the consequences of Hurricane Maria from 5 years in the past? Have they recovered from that at this level?

Díaz: No, they haven’t recovered. My uncle on the time when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico was residing in Comerío, which is within the heart of the island. Comerío was one of many hardest-hit communities. It’s a small city. Their bridges collapsed and their homes, throughout Hurricane Maria. So loads of them have been destroyed they usually have been flooded, and folks have been digging mud out of their residing rooms and bedrooms and kitchens for weeks after.

After I went, I need to say a 12 months in the past, the bridges have been nonetheless not fully reconstructed. There was a bridge that was simply, like, one lane the place folks have been nonetheless ready for development to occur. It felt like the whole lot was shifting very, very slowly. I acquired a way that folks have been nonetheless, in a approach, residing in survival mode.

I imply, the Econo grocery store was open and the parish was open, however you possibly can nonetheless see the destruction. You’ll be able to nonetheless see the devastation in locations like Comerío and the earthquakes proper after Maria.

In 2019, we had earthquakes hit Puerto Rico. They’re nonetheless coping with the a number of disasters, not simply this hurricane, Fiona. And there’s a way not solely that they’ve been ignored, however that no matter assist comes goes to return too late. There could also be one other hurricane earlier than they even really see any type of progress.

Ebeid: Whereas we’re taping this there’s, I believe, greater than 100,000 folks with out energy in Puerto Rico. However when, you already know, Fiona hit the island initially, it knocked a 3rd of the commonwealth off its energy grid, which we must always say is fairly antiquated and is clearly not standing as much as the hurricanes in the best way that it must, or bouncing again, I assume I ought to say. And this week, President Biden, he headed to Puerto Rico, and he had some guarantees.

President Joe Biden: As we conveyed to the governor, I’m able to deploy and expedite extra sources from the Division of Power and different federal companies, not simply … I don’t normally discuss this quick—it seems prefer it’s shifting rapidly … to assist rework the whole system of Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican folks can get clear, dependable, inexpensive energy they want in. The facility stays in properties and hospitals when storms like Fiona strike. That features mini grids, which you’ll start to deploy quickly so we’re much less depending on transmission traces throughout the lengthy distances and extra redundancy when the storms hit. The objective is decrease power payments and extra dependable energy for Puerto Rican households.

Ebeid: Jaquira, I ponder what goes by your thoughts whenever you hear President Biden speaking about new modernized power infrastructure for Puerto Rico.

Díaz: My emotions about something that … coming from any U.S. administration are difficult. After all, the Puerto Rican folks would welcome much-needed funds and aid and any type of assist if it ever arrives. I didn’t suppose the president would arrive, to be sincere.

Hurricane Fiona hit nicely greater than two weeks in the past. For me, I’ve little or no confidence on this administration or any U.S. administration for that matter, contemplating that so many individuals in Puerto Rico have needed to dwell in survival mode for thus lengthy. That is one thing that ought to have occurred years in the past.

After I consider President Biden’s remarks, I consider how lengthy it took for this to occur, how lengthy it took for Puerto Rico to get a waiver of the Jones Act. Time is of the essence whenever you’re speaking about folks’s survival. This was simply performative to me. So individuals who have household residing proper now in survival mode, this feels prefer it’s not sufficient.

Ebeid: I really feel like we must always simply let folks know what the Jones Act is. Principally, they’ve given a waiver to this act that might not allow non-U.S. tankers coming to the island. Is that proper?

Díaz: Sure. Just lately there was a tanker full of diesel that was attempting to ship diesel to Puerto Rico. And the areas that didn’t have energy have been working utilizing mills that want diesel to energy these mills, particularly hospitals, amenities for elder care that want mills with the intention to run with the intention to care for folks. And so the Jones Act prevented that ship from delivering that diesel, as a result of the Jones Act makes it in order that any deliveries need to be made to Puerto Rico from U.S. ships—from American ships constructed by the U.S.—whereas hospitals are ready for gasoline to energy their mills and might’t carry out surgical procedures or take care of sufferers. It felt just like the administration was simply taking its candy time contemplating this.

Ebeid: I hear your frustration and your skepticism in authorities assist. However I’m additionally questioning: Is it attainable for Puerto Rico to modernize with out authorities assist?

Díaz: I don’t know if it’s attainable at this level for Puerto Rico to truly rebuild with out authorities assist, and but they’ve been ready for presidency assist. I do suppose that the most effective factor for Puerto Rico is self-determination and finally independence, however that additionally comes with a sure accountability from the U.S. I believe regardless of the end result, whether or not or not Puerto Rico good points independence, that the present relationship—Puerto Rico as a colony—is just inflicting extra demise and destruction for Puerto Rico.

Ebeid: But it surely feels like there’s type of like an order of operations that should occur.

Díaz: Yeah.

Ebeid: It makes me marvel, like, when you consider Puerto Rico’s vulnerability to hurricanes on this, particularly on this specific second, does it make you lean in additional in the direction of independence or does it provide you with pause?

Díaz: It completely makes me really feel like independence is critical now greater than ever. However I additionally need to emphasize that independencia, what we consider as independence and self-determination, additionally wants to return with an in depth reparations settlement that isn’t simply reparations for the harms finished, however that’s really addressing essentially the most rapid issues of Puerto Ricans right now, which means getting support and care to the folks now. Not in 5 years, not in 10 years. Constructing hospitals in Vieques and Culebra, and really fixing the facility grid now, liquidating the large debt, after which beginning to take care of the sorts of reparations which can be addressing what has occurred in Puerto Rico traditionally due to its colonial standing.

Ebeid: So if the guarantees that President Biden is making now and the cash that he’s promising for a stronger grid, modernization of the grid, infrastructure fixes to Puerto Rico—do you take into account that partly reparations to the island?

Díaz: Completely. I believe it’s much-needed reparations. It wasn’t simply, you already know, pure disasters or local weather disasters. There’s a direct relationship with the US that has prevented Puerto Rico from caring for itself. And, I imply, there are different issues that the Jones Act causes in Puerto Rico, which is partly the debt and the way something that’s shipped to Puerto Rico has to return by the U.S. earlier than it will get to Puerto Rico. So it positively, to me, looks like this debt that has prevented Puerto Rico from getting aid and from really seeing some progress must be addressed. A few of these reparations proper now have to return with addressing these most rapid issues.

Ebeid: Robinson Meyer writes the publication The Weekly Planet for The Atlantic, specializing in local weather change and local weather coverage. We’re going to show to him now to get extra element on what it will take to improve Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, particularly its energy grid. Hello, Rob.

Robinson Meyer: Hey, thanks for having me.

Ebeid: President Biden has talked about modernizing the grid. We hear this time period quite a bit and never nearly Puerto Rico, proper. We hear about making our energy grids extra resilient. What does modernizing a grid imply?

Meyer: It’s type of like modernizing an IT system. It’s like whenever you hear the president say it, there’s a set of technological enhancements, you already know, new infrastructure to be constructed and cleaner power to be added that type of all fall right into a bucket of modernizing the grid. And so whenever you hear about modernizing the grid, what it tends to imply is making the grid extra resilient, extra environment friendly; you already know, much less prone to go down throughout pure disasters; and simpler to restore when it does.

As a result of I believe one factor that Fiona and Maria each made clear is that when a hurricane comes by, it isn’t atypical for the tower to go down. I imply, in Florida this previous week when Ian made landfall, hundreds of thousands of individuals in Florida misplaced energy. The distinction is that they then rapidly regained energy as a result of linemen come from across the nation or the grid is constructed to have the ability to return up after a catastrophe like that. It’s very, very uncommon to have a pure catastrophe the place days and days and days later, tons of of 1000’s of individuals or tens of 1000’s of individuals are nonetheless dropping energy.

Ebeid: When did conversations about modernizing the grid in Puerto Rico first begin? I assume it’s truthful to say it’s been an ongoing dialog. This isn’t model new.

Meyer: It’s actually not model new since Fiona and, after all, has been taking place to a point. There was ongoing reform, largely unsuccessful, of the Puerto Rican electrical system and who controls the grid. This has been an ongoing theme, actually because the the massive blackouts of Maria. However on the identical time, loads of the questions across the debt disaster that has been so harmful for the island’s authorities and has led to fairly harmful regimes imposed by the U.S. federal authorities on the island have been associated to type of essential infrastructure debt. So it, in some methods, precedes Maria.

Ebeid: One of many issues that President Biden talked about in reforming the facility grid in Puerto Rico was what he referred to as mini grids. They’re normally referred to as “microgrids.” Rob, what’s a microgrid, and does it really make sense for the island?

Meyer: So a microgrid is, I imply, precisely what it feels like, proper? So it’s a, you already know, a lot of the electrical grid that People within the continental U.S. take care of every single day is a macrogrid, proper? There may be the facility that we get in Washington, D.C., comes from throughout us, comes from Virginia and West Virginia and Pennsylvania, New Jersey and and at the same time as far south as Tennessee. And that’s as a result of there’s big infrastructure, big transmission infrastructure that connects all these energy vegetation to native transformers which connect with our distribution traces and the facility in the end winds up at our home.

Properly, in some locations, it doesn’t make sense to run that transmission infrastructure over an extended distance to get to then a comparatively concentrated quantity of electrical energy demand. What in case you simply might generate electrical energy on-site and retailer it on-site after which have a really small grid that serves simply these native clients? And that approach, too, if there’s a catastrophe and also you have been to wipe out … there was harm in a reasonably distant a part of that transmission community. The electrical energy by no means passes that distant, distant half. It’s generated domestically and it’s used domestically.

A part of a technical problem in Puerto Rico is that you just do get transmission passing by pretty dense tropical vegetation—you already know, exhausting to do upkeep on when you get there. If the technical difficulty alone was standing in the best way of getting a working grid in Puerto Rico, I believe that might make loads of sense. And I believe it in all probability will in the end be a part of the combination that works in a type of long-term sustainable foundation for Puerto Rico. However after all, that’s not the one cause that Puerto Rico has confronted continual underinvestment in its electrical energy system.

And so, you already know, you possibly can repair some political issues with expertise, however you possibly can’t repair all of them. And continual underinvestment is a type of issues that you just’re by no means going to get a greater expertise that permits you to resolve that downside, in case you’re not prepared to spend on infrastructure or, within the case of Puerto Rico, in case you’re fully unable to spend due to externally imposed debt-upkeep necessities and debt-payment necessities.

Ebeid: And you already know, Biden has promised $700 million to Puerto Rico. The place is that cash coming from? The brand new local weather invoice?

Meyer: So there’s loads of totally different cash that’s on supply. And, you already know, the president talked about a few of it in his speech. So I believe the most important quantity he mentioned was the $700 million quantity, which is for all Puerto Rican infrastructure that’s all mustered by the bipartisan infrastructure regulation, the Infrastructure Funding and Jobs Act.

That’s why the president, I believe, might make that very large dedication, as a result of, in actual fact, that cash was dedicated the second the regulation was signed.

Ebeid: And the dedication. Is it only a promise? And does the Biden administration need to observe by with committing this cash?

Meyer: I ought to add that the $700 million the president dedicated is all infrastructure spending.

None of this has something to do with {the electrical} infrastructure issues that we’re speaking about. With the 60 million for coastal resilience that the president pledged, the Biden administration has the power to spend that cash. What we’ve got not but seen is any plan about the way it’s going to be spent or whether or not it will be reversible if it isn’t spent in the course of the administration. So, you already know, if the president loses in 2024, would a future administration be locked into spending that cash? Or if, say, the White Home has solely—or the, you already know, federal companies and the Puerto Rican authorities have solely—spent, let’s say, $20 million of that $60 million by 2024. Is it attainable that the remaining $40 million may very well be rescinded?

Ebeid: So let’s discuss that—what are the ramifications—proper? As a result of I believe for a state, there are political ramifications to doing one thing like that.

Meyer: What I’ve been occupied with is on the state stage, when you will have a chronically failing grid, even a grid that’s perceived to be chronically failing, there are sometimes political penalties that ripple as much as the nationwide stage. And so the traditional instance right here is that within the early 2000s, California suffered from continual blackouts and brownouts. And so in 2003, the Republican Social gathering in California led a profitable recall effort in opposition to then-Governor Grey Davis, acquired him recalled and changed with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. And that’s really how Arnold Schwarzenegger grew to become governor of California.

And that had, you already know, nationwide political ramifications—that California, a reasonably blue state, was so fed up with the state of its electrical energy grid that it elected a Republican. What we see time and time once more is that if a U.S. state can’t ship a essential public service to such a big share of its residents—there are counterexamples right here, however by and huge—in case you simply can’t maintain the lights on and you can not carry the lights again on after a serious storm, there are political ramifications and political penalties.

What’s so putting about Puerto Rico’s state of affairs is that it’s restricted by its standing and by its lack of illustration within the federal authorities within the present kind. If it was unbiased, it will be the grasp of its personal destiny. However in its present kind, there’s no approach for these sorts of failures to ripple up. There’s no lever in the identical approach that there could be if, say, California had continual energy outages once more, or, let’s say, if Texas’s grid stored failing in the identical approach that it failed early final 12 months.

Ebeid: Yeah, I additionally suppose that we’ve got type of gotten to a spot with local weather change that one thing that felt up to now faraway from our on a regular basis wants in life, the facility grid, is one thing that’s nearer and nearer to us, proper? In an actual approach. And for Puerto Ricans, I believe that’s been true for for much longer. And since it’s inherently in a spot the place it’s getting pummeled greater than different locations when hurricanes come. And so for this reason I really feel like it is a exhausting dialog, proper? As a result of there’s a very human, on a regular basis toll of this, after which there’s this, like, very-far-removed utility dialog.

Meyer: Proper, however that is all the time why the utility stuff is so exhausting is as a result of, like, look, all of us work together with the electrical energy system every single day. I believe you possibly can say it’s a human proper to have electrical energy, that we deserve electrical energy at this level. We deserve it in the identical approach, you already know, folks deserve shelter and water, proper? It’s only a fundamental a part of our lives. It’s a fundamental a part of the financial invoice of rights that exists between the federal government and the folks. Unwritten, however nonetheless actual.

And but the electrical energy system is a gigantic, huge mass of metal and copper and wire and extremely technical programs that people who find themselves largely extra skilled than us with very technical levels handle and run. And so these are all the time the questions we run into when occupied with it. How does this technique that appears so heat that comes into all of our properties that all of us depend on every single day, however which additionally depends on actually difficult physics round resistance and, frankly, college-level electrical engineering—proper?—what’s the correct approach for a democracy to manipulate that type of infrastructure and for us to consider it? These are actually difficult questions all over the place.

What’s so putting right here, I believe, is that Puerto Rico will not be even given the democratic dignity to type of resolve these questions by itself. On the finish of the day, President Biden went residence. You already know, he went again to Washington after the journey. And he might care quite a bit about Puerto Rico in that second. However below its present standing, it doesn’t want a malevolent or nefarious story for the president to easily have many, many different obligations on his desk and plenty of different priorities. And those that have an effect on his job can rise to the highest and decide what really will get finished.

Ebeid: Robinson Meyer writes the publication The Weekly Planet for The Atlantic. Thanks, Rob.

Meyer: Thanks.

Ebeid: For Puerto Ricans, the long-hoped-for enhancements to their energy grid and the political wrangling which may someway get the island to a extra steady place all stay to be seen. Within the meantime, two weeks after Hurricane Fiona, Jaquira describes what folks in Puerto Rico are doing to maneuver ahead.

Díaz: So one of many issues that has all the time been true of Puerto Ricans is that when there’s a pure catastrophe, when there’s any catastrophe in any disaster, they depend on one another—they flip to their neighbors, they flip to associates and strangers, simply individuals who dwell shut by. And that these are the folks that they depend on. We noticed that in Hurricane Maria. We’re seeing that now, that there are loads of native, small, nonprofit mutual-aid teams which can be both taking donations to purchase provides for folks or really displaying up at folks’s homes to ship provides.

A few of these usually are not even organizations. They’re simply folks within the neighborhood who’re looking for one another. Listed below are individuals who dwell in one other city who’ve the luxurious of getting a automobile and can drive someplace to guarantee that folks have assist, who’re going door to door simply to test on folks and say, “Is there something you want? You want water. Do you want diesel?” I believe that’s all the time been the case in Puerto Rico.

One of many issues that I noticed myself is, once I visited Yabucoa within the 4 days after hurricane Fiona, was that everyone on the town—all people—all of them knew one another. They knew one another’s names. They requested one another if they’d energy, but they really acted as if—whether or not or not they have been strangers, by the best way—they acted as in the event that they have been all in it collectively. And so a part of what you are feeling whenever you go into these cities like Comerío is that we’re all caring for one another, as a result of there is no such thing as a authorities coming to care for us.

I used to be in a bakery attempting to purchase a espresso, they usually didn’t have energy they usually have been working with a generator. And there was a person who mentioned he didn’t have money and he needed to make use of his ATM. He mentioned, “I’ve cash within the financial institution, however I simply don’t have money.” And a stranger got here up and gave him a few {dollars} in order that he might purchase one thing to eat. And to me, that’s indicative of what’s been taking place in Puerto Rico since I’ve been alive, which is that the individuals are on the market caring for one another, and that’s very actual.

Ebeid: Jaquira Díaz writes for The Atlantic. Her most up-to-date article is “Puerto Rico Wants Independence, Not Statehood.” Jaquira, thanks for speaking with us right now.

Díaz: Thanks a lot for having me. I actually recognize it.



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