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Patches of power return to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona hits, but flooding catastrophic

Sept. 19, 2022 Updated Mon., Sept. 19, 2022 at 9:12 a.m.

A man stands near a flooded road during the passage of Hurricane Fiona in Villa Blanca, Puerto Rico, on Sunday, Sept.18, 2022.   (MELVIN PEREIRA/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
A man stands near a flooded road during the passage of Hurricane Fiona in Villa Blanca, Puerto Rico, on Sunday, Sept.18, 2022.  (MELVIN PEREIRA/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Arelis R. Hernández,Jason Samenow and Praveena Somasundaram The Washington Post

Puerto Ricans across the archipelago are waking up to destruction and no electricity after the passage of a slow-moving Category 1 storm that dropped copious rain, triggering catastrophic flooding and landslides. Hurricane Fiona is expected to strengthen as it leaves the U.S. territory and hurtles toward the Dominican Republic and its popular resort city, Punta Cana.

The tempest’s unexpectedly calamitous arrival came days before the fifth anniversary of one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history, Hurricane Maria, which left Puerto Rico in the dark for months and killed more than 3,000 people. The federal government set aside billions for reconstruction, but the sluggish recovery has left its communities vulnerable.

Hours after Hurricane Fiona left Puerto Rico in a total blackout, energy company Luma said Monday morning that it had started to restore electrical service in some areas near San Juan, including Toa Baja, Toa Alta, Bayamón and Corozal.

In a tweet, the private consortium said power had been restored to 100,000 homes. Luma has a total of 1.5 million customers around the island.

The Category 1 storm made landfall Sunday afternoon, cutting power to all of Puerto Rico. It was continuing the batter the island Monday. The National Weather Service has extended a flash flood warning in southeastern parts of Puerto Rico until 2 p.m.

Luma was contracted by the government to manage its electrical transmission system. It took over operations in June 2021.

Fiona’s destructive toll on Puerto Rico is an anomaly in what has otherwise been a remarkably sleepy Atlantic hurricane season. But it proves the point forecasters often make that, even in quiet years, “it only takes one” storm to bring disaster.

Through Sunday, overall Atlantic tropical storm activity in 2022 was less than half the norm, even taking Fiona into account. Before Fiona, only two other Atlantic storms formed this month, the historic peak of hurricane season. The two storms, Danielle and Earl, mainly roamed the open ocean before dissipating.

Still, there is plenty of hurricane season left. Late September and October often bring stormy periods and have produced devastating hurricanes in recent years, including Delta in 2020, Michael in 2018 and Sandy in 2012. The season doesn’t officially end until Nov. 30.

Nevertheless, this season has surprised forecasters for the overall lack of storms, and is a remarkable change from the previous two seasons, which were historically active. The 2021 season produced 21 named storms, the third-most on record, exhausting all of the names of the National Hurricane Center’s conventional naming list. In 2020, a record 30 named storms formed. The two seasons combined produced the most landfalling storms on record in the United States.

After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico five years ago, residents didn’t have power for months, sparking outrage and leading to calls for better natural disaster response and restoration of the island’s worsening power grid.

Last year, nearly 1 million people lost power after a fire broke out at an electrical substation - the second outage Puerto Ricans experienced in the span of one week - stoking fears of another blackout, reminiscent of Hurricane Maria.

The outages have angered residents, who have spoken out about service from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the state-run utility provider, and Luma Energy, the private consortium contracted by the government to manage its electrical transmission and distribution system. Luma took over the system in June 2021.

But even after the privatization of the power grid through Luma, residents remain frustrated as efforts to fix Puerto Rico’s infrastructure continue.

PREPA was awarded $9.4 billion for projects to “transform the island’s electrical system,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced in 2021. And this year, FEMA announced 15 new projects - totaling more than $107 million in funds - dedicated to making Puerto Rico’s power grid more reliable.

In a statement at the time, FEMA Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator José Baquero said the projects would take time, but that the agency was “focused on the goal of an unprecedented recovery.”

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