Around a third of Puerto Ricans are still without power more than a week after Hurricane Fiona struck the island, with the US now bracing as a separate storm heads to Florida.
The island’s power operator, Luma Energy, said about 33% of homes and businesses, or about 490,000 customers, were without electricity as of 8am Tuesday morning. Thousands of others remain without access to running water, and officials have warned that the initial recovery effort could take weeks.
Those figures are down from the nearly 1.5 million Puerto Ricans who didn’t have power Saturday, but they still present a major hurdle nine days after the storm hit the island. At least three people have died, although Puerto Rico’s governor said as many as 16 deaths may be linked to the storm.
President Joe Biden has faced mounting pressure to issue a federal waiver so that a BP ship carrying diesel can access a port on the island to help alleviate the power crisis. The White House, however, says its hands are tied by a provision known as the Jones Act that imposes federal shipping restrictions.
Fiona battered the US territory with 85 mph winds earlier this month, knocking out power to the entire island and bringing back memories of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. That storm struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 behemoth, causing widespread damage and killing more than 3,000 people.
After Maria, the government allocated billions of dollars in relief funding to update the island’s patchwork power grid, but much of that money hasn’t been spent. Lawmakers have renewed calls to update Puerto Rico’s electricity system, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week said an “ongoing conflict” had hamstrung efforts to do so.
“Instead of making it a resilient grid, a locally based grid, they’re busy fighting with each other,” Schumer said, referencing the privately held Luma Energy and the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
The island’s ongoing recovery comes amid the new threat of Hurricane Ian, a monstrous Category 3 storm taking aim at Florida. Ian swept over Cuba on Monday night, and it is prompting tens of thousands to evacuate Florida’s Gulf Coast before an expected landfall Wednesday night.
Biden has pledged full federal support for those in Ian’s path, saying the Federal Emergency Management Agency and his administration are “on alert and in action.”
“We’ll be with you every step of the way,” the president told Americans on Tuesday. “We’re not going away.”