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Puerto Rico’s first major storm since Hurricane Maria is approaching

Hurricane Dorian is much weaker than Maria, but Puerto Rico is in a more fragile state.

Blue tarps cover houses visible from the expressway in the Northern town of Canovanas on September 19, 2018 in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico.
FEMA tarps still cover roofs damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 as Tropical Storm Dorian makes landfall.
Angel Valentin/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Hurricane Dorian, now upgraded from a tropical storm, churned east of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands Wednesday afternoon, whipping the islands with gusts up to 111 mph. Several islands are under flash flood warnings with up to 8 inches of rain expected. The storm is forecast to pick up strength and reach Florida as a Category 2 hurricane late Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

For Puerto Rico, Dorian is the first major storm to strike the island since Hurricane Maria in 2017, which hit with 175 mph winds. Maria knocked down 80 percent of the island’s power lines, leaving 3.4 million Americans mired in the largest blackout in US history, and led to the deaths of almost 3,000 people.

Though Dorian is expected to be much weaker than Maria, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, economy, and government are in a much more fragile state than they were in 2017. Thousands of blue tarps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency still cover homes across the island, a visible reminder that the recovery still isn’t complete and another disaster could happen again.

On Twitter this week, President Trump complained about how much money was allocated to Puerto Rico’s recovery effort:

It echoes a Twitter outburst Trump had in April, where he described San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as “crazed.” However, it is not true that Congress approved $92 billion; the allocation was actually $42 billion, and roughly $11 billion has been spent in Puerto Rico so far. On Tuesday, Trump signed a federal emergency declaration for Puerto Rico authorizing aid and public assistance for disaster planning and relief.

Dorian is also making landfall at a time of intense political turmoil in Puerto Rico. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned last month after massive protests across the island against government corruption and leaked messages showing sexist, violent, and homophobic language among Rosselló’s inner circle.

Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez was sworn in as governor earlier this month after Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court invalidated Rosselló’s appointment of Pedro Pierluisi, a former politician, to be his successor.

There are major changes underway in the power sector as well. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the island’s public electricity utility, is effectively bankrupt and is undergoing privatization following years of neglect of the power grid and accusations of nepotism in its management. In April, Rosselló signed a law that would require Puerto Rico to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

The island as a whole is still suffering from a government debt crisis, and the US Supreme Court is expected to weigh in during its fall term.

Though a storm like Maria is unavoidable, the fact that its devastation lingered for so long stems from poor planning and mismanagement, and the recent upheaval in Puerto Rico’s government isn’t helping.

Nonetheless, Vázquez said Puerto Rico is ready for Dorian, building on the hard lessons from Maria. In a press conference on Tuesday, she said Puerto Rico is already coordinating with federal disaster agencies and is stockpiling utility poles and spare parts to avoid shipping bottlenecks after the storm. She also signed an executive order to freeze the prices of necessities to prevent gouging.

“Today, the government’s response is different in the face of this emergency,” she told El Nuevo Día on Tuesday.