A Political Hurricane: Puerto Rico’s Storm Response in the midst Bureaucratic Blight

By Camila Young


As sheets of rain pummeled the windows and the winds whistled through the cracks in the door, I toasted a bagel on a candle: my makeshift toaster. 

My little brother was sneaking out the door to run in the wind, while my dad was taking a video of his idiocracy. When a palm frond almost collapsed on his head, I heard a yelp and a loud slam as he was ushered back inside. The candle blew out, and I was left in the dark with a half warmed bagel. 

The Hurricane Irma impact in Miami was my first real hurricane, during which I had to evacuate home and stay with friends who lived inland. Our diet consisted mostly of sandwiches and oranges that week, since making them didn’t require any electric power. When my family arrived back home, the streets were flooded enough to canoe down. Power cables littered the grounds, electrifying the flooded streets, and trees obstructed the way. The waters receded after a few days, leaving crabs scurrying around. Catching them made for a lively pastime for my brother and I. Fortunately, our power returned within the month, and the shingles of our roof were repaired along with the traffic lights down the street. 

We were lucky. 

My family in Puerto Rico had a very different story. Category 5 hurricane Maria whipped out the island’s infrastructure. Trees obstructed the streets you’d have to walk to get to the pharmacy for your medications, so my grandma called my uncle to make the walk for her. Flash flooding and landslide alerts rang through the phones of my grandparents. Their power was gone for months, and it took up to 11 months to get it back for some residents. Having to rely on expensive gas-powered generators meant a huge economic burden to the island. Beyond that, fear shook the community as collapsed safety systems meant theft was becoming more common. 

The worst part is the excessive delay in repairs. Even four years later, my aunt tells me she can expect the power to go out once a week in her home since the power systems weren’t replaced properly. When I visited my grandparents seven months after the storm, some traffic lights were not fixed yet and fallen trees still sprawled along the sides of the streets. Shops were closed since they couldn’t afford the renovations. Recreational activities were stalled. 

The island was left in a depression, and with the trailing COVID outbreak, it seemed as if Puerto Rico couldn’t get a break. This year, alerts of another hurricane rang through the islander’s phones: Hurricane Fiona. Although a much weaker storm, given the botched recovery from the last storm, I wondered how the islanders were reacting to it. Politically and economically questionable transitions, like the privatization of the power grid and corruption in office, left the island particularly vulnerable. 

I spoke to my aunt, Lili Lopez, to gain a greater insight on what the reaction to Fiona was like for residents. She lives close to the capitol, San Juan, and has grown up in Puerto Rico. 

*Some answers were edited for clarity

Do you feel like people were more frantic for hurricane Fiona because of what happened with Maria?

Considering how devastating Maria was, people were very prepared for Hurricane Fiona. They knew what to expect, and were able to collect the supplies needed very quickly. It brought back flashbacks of the difficult time. 

I remember watching a meteorologist give a report to Puerto Rico about Fiona when it was first thought to make landfall, and she was explicit in telling people to remain calm since this storm was not as strong as Fiona. Do you think there was a sense of dread in the community?

Keep in mind, I didn’t have power for 3-4 months after Hurricane Maria. Now, Hurricane Fiona was not that bad, and only hit a few areas in the island. Regardless, it took out our power because we never truly recovered from Maria for political reasons. Our energy system is practically obsolete, and the problem hasn’t been updated for 40 years, so the community feels any small shock very intensely. 

When it comes to those impacted, businesses were more concerned about the storm than the civilians were. After both Hurricane Maria and the COVID pandemic, businesses lost many workers and thus incurred many expenses. The economy is suffering, so it is hard for them to take on another disaster. 

But in general, Fiona was nothing like Maria, since Maria had shut down the whole island. Fiona was more a reminder of the political and economic decline we are in.

Remember, we have seen many events in a very short amount of time: Maria, the 6.4 magnitude earthquake, COVID. This really impacted people’s pockets and social life. Nevertheless, in response, we are very social people, so we tried everything we could to help each other out. 

Do you think people are mad at the political situation which allowed these consequences to get this exasperated?

Oh yes, all of our energy service bills are going up, and we are experiencing rapid inflation. The people are frustrated with the government. There is a lot of depression in the island because of how difficult it is to respond to these economic lows. Yes, we are afraid. Yes, we are mad. Many people have to take on multiple jobs to keep up, and it’s tough. 

What do you think was the hardest environmental concern to deal with for this storm?

Fiona brought a lot of water through storm surges, and in contrast Maria came with many winds. So different parts of the island were affected this time, especially low lying houses. 

Have you noticed any other social phenomenon as a result of these storms?

At the time of the earthquakes prior to Maria, there was a sentiment of fear. Many landslides followed the shocks, and the tremors lasted for several weeks, so we never truly knew when we were safe. You can imagine how the towns became ghost towns. Since there were so many extra repair expenses, people avoided many social activities, and this is very out of place for a Puerto Rican culture where we love to gather. 

Then, when Maria and the COVID pandemic arrived, it was a time of survival. We had hit rock bottom, and regardless of social class everyone felt the stagnation of the community. The government disproportionately helped civilians, and those in the working class were hit very hard. This was when we went into an economic depression, and in response, we reactivated our social activities because we had to find a way to enliven our mental health as a community. We are a country which understands the importance of community building for mental health. 

Now for Fiona, it didn’t come with the same force as hurricane Maria, but as I mentioned before, for political reasons it shut down the whole island for 3 weeks. Obviously, social outings decreased because of the expenses, but we still tried to keep our community alive in the ways we could. Because we tried to keep up this happiness, we were able to be resilient. 

Do you feel like safety was a concern after Fiona considering how theft was a problem after Maria?

People felt the same as they did before the storm, safety wasn’t a big concern. The true problem was economic because of government decisions. 


Mrs. Lopez felt the burden of the storm as a working citizen, but I wondered how this climactic time affected the younger generation. I asked my friend, Ingrid Rodriguez Vila, to share her experience as a student in these storms. Ingrid is a Yale student in Branford who grew up in Puerto Rico. 


*responses were edited for clarity

What was social life like after hurricane Maria?

I was in middle school at this time, so I can only really describe what the social life was like for a young girl. There was definitely isolation, in the sense that you couldn’t see your friends. In this way you were forced to spend time with people who were close in proximity to you, like your neighbors. Right after Maria was when I actually met my neighbors. There was a lot of immediate community bonding because everyone was going through the same thing, but there was also distancing from traditional friendships. Telecommunications were down, so you couldn’t text people. I remember how there was a time when we had to get on the roof of our house and hold the phone out at a certain spot to get a signal.

How did you go to school, considering the circumstances?

When it was that bad, we didn’t go to school. When we did come back, my school didn’t have a large generator, just a lot of small generators, so the power fluctuated. On the first day it flooded, which was kind of funny. The roof of the cafeteria was made of zinc, so it flew off. We got an interior patio, which was very nice. They didn’t replace the roof until my senior year, which is also funny. 

School was difficult because our books were digital, and we didn’t have access to signals. A lot of the time, we used handouts. When it came to studying, I have a strong memory of using a lantern in the dark, because my power didn’t come back until the end of December (Maria hit in September).

In contrast to Maria, what was your family’s reaction to Fiona?

The impact was definitely less, based on what I heard from my family. It was only category one. The problem in Puerto Rico though is that just a category one storm knocks out the infrastructure because of how weak it is. The biggest problem they had with Fiona was power, which was the same problem with Maria, but now there is an added layer. There was a privatization of the Puerto Rican power grid, where the formerly government run power grid was sold to a Canadian company called Luma. It was a very controversial decision because this company is not really qualified to run a power grid in Puerto Rico. Since March of this year, the power has been unreliable, and there would be power outages when nothing even happened. So with Fiona, it exasperated the unreliable power situation. 

I was under the impression that this was a political problem, I hadn’t realized it was a private issue as well.

Well the governed was the one who sold the power grid, so I guess it is a political issue as well. 

Do you feel like Puertoricans are skeptical of their governing bodies? With the context of there being a revolt against the corrupt governor in the Ricky Renuncia movement, and then on top of that, this controversial privatization decision?

I speak for people that are my age, a lot of people are disillusioned. There is a lot of resignation, among youth. As soon as you start looking into the current system, it’s hard to see a way out of it. All the candidates are the same, and there is a lot of corruption. But there is a new I put ice to change the two party political structure. The last election was the last time when an independent party got an unprecedented amount of votes. Now there is talks of joining forces of the small parties to get out of the two-party choke hold, but the parties do have a lot of differences and drama. It’s a very Puerto Rican thing, where there is petty drama everywhere, even in politics. I guess that’s the same everywhere, but it’s emphasized here because the island is so small and everyone knows each other through some connection. 

Do you feel like our generation is more open to diverging from the two party system?

Totally. These independent parties have gotten this surge because of young voter demographics. There is a very entrenched family partisanship in Puerto Rico, where there is generational party affiliation. If your dad voted for Penepe you’ll vote for him too. But this generation now has been faced with so much, like Ricky Renuncia, and we have seen how fundamentally flawed the political system is. We are more willing to gamble on new ideas and parties we haven’t seen before because it is clear these other parties haven’t worked. At least I am hopeful this is what our generation will come to share a sentiment in. 


A lot of the political themes Ingrid described can also be said to some degree for politics in the continental United States. As a society, we need to start prioritizing innovation, and having faith in the unknown isn’t always a bad thing. 

As for the hurricane accounts, it really opens our eyes to how human condition and climate change has intensified the danger of natural disasters. 

With warming seas, we can expect tropical storms to increase in magnitude. 

With burning politics, we can expect compromise to fall to ash. 

Now, we are left at a point where choices need to be made, and hopefully we can start moving towards a more sustainable future.

Camila Young is a first-year in Ezra Stiles College and can be reached at camila.young@yale.edu.