Puerto Rico: After Dark Chapter, Future Hope Using Technology

Hurricane Maria brought unprecedented devastation to Puerto Rico, and the majority of residents are still without power. Nevertheless, with new federal aid and some of the world’s top technology leaders getting involved, the hope for a better tomorrow is now returning.

by / October 29, 2017
Credit: Jose A. Iglesias/Miami Herald/TNS

In a hurricane season filled with unprecedented damage, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands continue to have the greatest amount of ongoing struggles and widespread impacts. Puerto Rico is now the largest blackout in U.S. history, with 75 percent of the island still without power, 36 days after Hurricane Maria struck the island. 

Never before has our country faced three back-to-back hurricanes that so severely impacted both people and also crippled critical infrastructure in the way that Harvey, Irma and Maria hammered Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico along with the U.S. Virgin Islands.

This video shows some of the damage caused by Hurricane Maria.

Despite plenty of criticism for unequal hurricane relief efforts, much has been done by FEMA and hundreds of other public- and private-sector groups to help Puerto Rico regain their footing. Still, Puerto Rican officials say it could take up to six months before its power grid is fully repaired and restored.

As aid groups continue to struggle to get supplies to help residents in need, many groups continue to focus on restoring power and cell service, especially in remote areas.

The New York Times focused on a perfect storm of failures and weeks without lights. “Thirty days after the storm, I see very little progress,” said Eduardo Bhatia, an opposition senator who in 2014 wrote an energy reform law. He added, “I don’t see the boots on the field doing the work, and that is a tragedy.”

What’s the causing these delays? The NY Times article continues: “After major storms, power companies typically rely on mutual aid agreements to get electricity restored. Outside companies send thousands of workers, and electric companies pay for the service with funds from FEMA.

Such agreements are “absolutely critical,” said Devon Streit, the deputy assistant secretary for infrastructure security at the Department of Energy, which is helping to coordinate the restoration of power. But in this instance, some companies were concerned about getting paid, she said, because the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, had filed for bankruptcy protection in July after defaulting on $9 billion in debt.”

This article from The Washington Post illustrates the ongoing challenges faced by Puerto Rico as the pictures tell a remarkable story that continues.

Here are a few important facts to understand: 

“Workers and tools must be flown to the island. Any heavy equipment, such as bucket trucks, transformers and wires, must be transported on ships.

When the workers and equipment arrive, the next challenge is repairing downed lines among the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA)’s 2,478 miles of transmission lines, clearing debris from roads, and providing food and water to residents. …

Several U.S. utility companies have sent workers to help PREPA with restoring power.

On Oct. 19, Whitefish Energy, a Whitefish, Mont.-based energy company, announced it signed a $300 million contract with PREPA to repair and reconstruct large portions of the electrical infrastructure.

The contract, however, is drawing scrutiny from Congress. …”

One of the huge challenges facing the recovery is that underfunding and poor state of the Prep-owned power plants prior to Hurricane Maria. Reports last year described the electrical grid to be “running on fumes,” in a state of disrepair and needing about $4 billion to bring systems up to the proper state.

Of course, without power, almost every other aspect of improving critical infrastructure is negatively impacted.

Finally Turning the Corner?

But despite all of this bad news, is there finally light at the end of the long tunnel for Puerto Rico?

The big news this week is that more money is finally on the way. “President Donald Trump signed a $36.5 billion emergency aid measure on Thursday to refill disaster accounts, provide a cash infusion to Puerto Rico and bail out the federal flood insurance program. …

The current measure would permit FEMA to allocate up to $5 billion to assist Puerto Rico's central government and various municipalities dealing with a cash crisis.”

This Brookings Institute blog also brings hope by pointing to the reality that disasters can lead to unexpected and rapid technology innovation.

Excerpt: “We know that many diesel generators — the current technology of choice for backup power in many critical facilities — failed in Puerto Rico, as they have in all modern disasters, from the New York City blackout, to Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, and now Maria. They flood, or simply stop, when the fuel is gone.

Into this dangerous power breach comes Elon Musk, the peripatetic disruptor of multiple industries, from autos to space travel, and now the electric power sector. He has already started sending Tesla batteries to Puerto Rico, to be installed with solar as an emergency measure to provide power to critical facilities. He’s not the only one.

Sonnen, a German company with manufacturing facilities in the United States, is installing solar and storage systems in Puerto Rico at emergency shelters. Their systems can provide critical power for cell phones, lights and refrigeration. …”

TheVerge.com describes how a casual comment on Twitter by Tesla CEO Elon Musk about rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid using solar technology was quickly responded to by the island’s governor with the comment: “Let’s talk.”

Related articles on rebuilding using the latest smart grid technology were written by Fastcompany.com, Technologyreview.com and Barrons.com. Indeed, many Silicon Valley companies want to help rebuild Puerto Rico.

Summing up the opportunity very well, Barrons.com proclaims: “It’s time to transform Puerto Rico’s power grid. Hurricane Maria's damage affords the U.S. government an opportunity to upgrade the island’s power supply with a focus on renewables. …”

However, all of this costs money and time, and it is not clear where that long-term investment will come from. In the short term,Tesla has delivered solar power to Puerto Rico children's hospital and other similar examples of critical need following Hurricane Maria.

Resources to Consider

As the hurricane restoration and rebuilding process continues to unfold in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, there are many excellent resources to take advantage of from The Council of State Governments (COSG) Knowledge Center.

COSG gives a longer-term perspective on government issues and solutions than found most in IT literature and reference policy areas, such as elections under critical infrastructure and potential disruptions and disasters. Here is a sample of some of the excellent research that can provide information actions on these topics: 

Other excellent resources come from Brookings on how Puerto Rico’s recovery requires a sustained federal commitmentThe Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on how Puerto Rico’s utility contracting has sparked new probes and how the Jones Act has delayed delivery of much-needed supplies.

There are also quite a few articles covering how bond funds are selling Puerto Rico bonds and investors were exiting Puerto Rico in the wake of recent hurricanes.  

Governing magazine offered these important insights:

“Since both U.S. territories had such a low financial capacity to deal with a major disaster in the first place, it will take them much longer to rebuild than Houston and the Florida Keys, which were also hit by major hurricanes this year. ‘It's going to easily be a decade,’ says Deserai Crow, a disaster recovery expert at the University of Colorado Denver.

That's in part due to the level of devastation brought by the hurricanes. Puerto Rico's entire electric grid was severely damaged following Hurricane Maria in September, leaving the whole island without power and, in most cases, a working water and sewer system. Federal officials say it could take months before power is restored there.

Maria also ravaged St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, while St. John and St. Thomas were pummeled by Hurricane Irma just 14 days earlier. All three islands are facing widespread power outages as well. Although, running water is expected to return this weekend.”

Finally, Route Fifty offered some interesting insights on how the Trump administration holds all the cards on Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. Here’s an excerpt: In terms of relief, Puerto Rico still remains in the “response phase” ensuring public safety and the meeting of critical needs like water, sewer, power, communication, mobility, and trade…. 

Once the short-term response phase is finished, the long-term “recovery phase” led by FEMA will begin bringing action plans and the prioritization of projects. …

Intergovernmental cooperation, as well as communication with the private sector and NGOs, is improving in Puerto Rico, and that could make or break resilient recovery. Disaster politics could stymie it.

Wrap-up

There are several opportunities to participate in free briefings that offer helpful insights on hurricane disaster response in the coming weeks, and one of those is offered by Deloitte experts on Oct. 31, 2017 — which will likely be recorded for later use. 

Participants will learn how tested strategies and effective practices can speed recovery from natural disasters and reinforce business continuity for the long term.

I plan to come back to this wider topic with another blog on the 2017 hurricanes and natural disaster response later this year, but I want to end this piece on a positive note.

Despite numerous ongoing challenges and many serious issues that remain in Puerto Rico, I am encouraged overall that the worst is behind Puerto Rico regarding Hurricane Maria response. There is light at the end of this dark tunnel.

My hope is that all of America can come together to make this very horrible situation that is facing our fellow citizens the impetus for a bipartisan rebuilding effort that truly helps Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to move forward for a better tomorrow.