A year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans rebuild amid setbacks

A year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans rebuild amid setbacks

“If they don’t look into solar energy, it would be a missed opportunity,” Getner told NBC.

There are few details of the new plan to privatize the island’s power authority. However, residents like Castillo are hopeful that privatization will eventually push half the island into renewable energy mechanisms or microgrids and lower energy costs to customers.

Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said in a press release, “Our goal is that in five years 40 percent of our energy is generated from renewable sources, such as wind and solar.”

Even though public officials have thrown around the idea of prioritizing places like Vieques for new renewable energy installations, the municipality’s current electrical infrastructure can’t withstand another hurricane.

“We don’t have proper electricity, we’re run by generators. The wind is going to blow and then we’re out again,” said Michaud. “We’re not prepared at all for the next one.”

Improving urban and economic development

In August, over 60 community organizers, nonprofit leaders, urban planners and experts from across the island came together at the headquarters of Espacios Abiertos — a nonprofit that promotes government transparency and accountability — to discuss the drafts of the government’s long-term economic and disaster recovery plan, which laid out a 12-to-24 month recovery strategy. Federal agencies require that the island crafts these plans in order to disburse federal funds.

Deepak Lamba-Nieves, research director at the Center for a New Economy (CNE), a nonpartisan think tank, described what was at stake: the need to recover quickly but in a responsible, well-planned manner that helps build a resilient infrastructure against future disasters like Maria.

But Puerto Rico’s territorial status — it’s not a U.S. state — and the fact that it’s under federal oversight due to its fiscal crisis makes the process much more complicated, and frustratingly slow.

Federico Del Monte, vice president of the Puerto Rican Planning Society, was in attendance.

“How can we think about rebuilding when all of us here agree that we need to redesign our country?” said Del Monte. “That document talks about rebuilding what we had. But is that what we want?”

A lawyer in the room instantly shouted: “No! We need to improve it because hurricanes are going to keep coming!”

The government estimates that the infrastructural transformation they strive for could cost nearly $130 billion dollars; this includes upgrading the electrical infrastructure and modernizing telecommunications and water systems.

Although the island’s government expects that some of these projects will be financed with the help of federal money, experts agree that Puerto Rico needs other sources of revenue to afford long-term reconstruction efforts at a time when the island struggles with paying a public debt of more than $72 billion.

One way to do it is by prioritizing island-based companies when issuing recovery-related contracts, said Lamba-Nieves.

However, CNE experts found that most of the reconstruction-related contracts issued by Puerto Rico with already-disbursed federal funds since Hurricane Maria made landfall have been to mainland-based companies.

“How can a reconstruction generate an activity of local economic development if the majority of these reconstruction contracts are being granted to foreign companies?” Lamba-Nieves said. “It’s true that they can hire people in the island, but still most of the revenue will go outside of Puerto Rico.”

Only $500 million in federal funds have gone to Puerto Rico-based contractors, while $4.5 billion have gone to U.S.-based companies. “The difference is abysmal,” Lamba-Nieves said.

While some federal funds have been disbursed, towns like Canóvanas are still waiting for their share of federal grants; with the money, they hope to build and repair 300 housing units and put solar energy systems in place.

A year after Hurricane Maria, Canóvanas and other municipalities have not received these funds.

Amid the government’s delays, Paez Marte decided to patch up his own roof with construction materials donated by a local group.

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