How one woman is empowering leaders in Puerto Rico to spearhead their own hurricane recovery efforts: ‘The communities are saving themselves’

Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 19. That's when the Category 1 storm, which wasn’t expected to cause severe damage, triggered flooding, food shortages and a power outage which, more than a week later, is still affecting thousands on the island.

Enter Adi Martínez-Roman, founder of FURIA Puerto Rico, a nonprofit organization that empowers local communities and promotes the development of community leadership in Puerto Rico. She’s seen this story before, and finds it unacceptable that the local and federal governments were not better prepared for Hurricane Fiona.

“To this day, 73% of Puerto Ricans don't have electric service. That also means, for many, that they don't have water service,” Martínez-Roman tells Yahoo Life. “The situation has been very, very hard for people because we are still suffering PTSD from previous hurricanes. So this Category 1 hurricane has broken havoc for many, physically and mentally.”

In 2017, Hurricane Maria caused widespread death and damage to Puerto Rico. That, a Category 5 storm, claimed more than 2,975 lives and led to a nearly 11-month effort to restore electric service to the entire island. At the time, Martínez-Roman was working on the ground and observed how federal funds were being mismanaged or directed to the wrong places. That's when she launched FURIA (which translates to ‘rage’ in Spanish) as a way to empower Puerto Ricans with the tools they need to improve their own communities. She says that in disaster situations, the local leadership should get to play a larger role.

“We have to make sure that the voices of the leaders and their power is not trampled by all this rhetoric of ‘recovery,’"says Martínez-Roman. “And when I say community leaders, those are the people that live in the community — low-income communities that have had to fight for their existence and their wellbeing since before the hurricanes.”

Toa Alta Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2022 after Hurricane Fiona passed.
Toa Alta Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 after Hurricane Fiona passed. (Photo: Getty Images)

Martínez-Roman, who is also the director of operations at UPR Resiliency Law Center, was with the organization in Washington, D.C., when Fiona hit Puerto Rico — advocating for fair and eco-conscious recovery aid from Hurricane Maria, actually, five years later, with a delegation of community leaders. Back in Puerto Rico, the team at FURIA has been on the ground helping to clean up damage and provide food to those who have been impacted by the storm. Unfortunately, the faulty power grid is something the locals can’t fix.

“The power grid, after Irma and Maria, was actually privatized, and this contract of the government of Puerto Rico with the new power company did not have the metrics or did not have the clause that would ensure the effective performance of that new company, which is Luma energy, and Luma energy has not performed effectively,” says Martinez Ramon.

It’s clear that Puerto Rico has struggled with electricity over the last couple of years. PREPA, the island’s power utility, still owns the power grid equipment. But after filing for bankruptcy in 2017, it brought in the private company LUMA to operate the service. The result has been frequent blackouts, high energy costs, delays and, according to Martínez-Roman, a number of LUMA employees who are not certified to do the work that needs to be done.

That lack of preparedness has in many ways worsened Hurricane Fiona's impact. In the wake of the power outage, reports of generator explosions have increased, as have situations of residents accidentally starting fires after misusing candles. People who need to refrigerate medications — diabetics who use insulin, for example — have been left without options. And matters are even worse for patients in hospitals who need to use ventilators to breathe. While many hospitals have backup generators, fuel shortages have made it harder to access the diesel needed to power them.

A downed electricity pole on September 20, 2022 in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)
A downed electricity pole on Sept. 20 in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Jose Jimenez for Getty Images)

“When you privatize something that is essential, like electricity, you are putting something important and essential for life into the hands of private interests,” Martínez-Roman. “So when you put that in the hands of private interest, you always run the risk that the priority of this company is not going to be the public wellbeing, it’s going to be: How are they going to make profit? How are they going to survive economically?”

President Biden has provided a month of government aid to Puerto Rico, but it’s clear that much more is needed to improve the infrastructure and stop the cycle of disaster and recovery on the island. As a Territory of the United States, some argue that statehood would help to remedy these problems, but Martínez-Roman points to class and race as bigger factors as to why Puerto Rico is often left on its own.

“What we see going wrong with disaster recovery is not only going wrong in Puerto Rico, it's going wrong right now in Alaska, where they had a storm last week. And it's also going wrong in places like Louisiana, like Texas, where Black and brown populations are left out and displaced from their recovery efforts. So I think it's more a problem of oppression, and how disaster recovery becomes this economy," says Martínez-Roman.

Over the years, she has seen private interests descend on Puerto Rico and divert money away from those those who need it the most. And she believes that the best place to put the future of Puerto Rico is in the hands of the local communities whose strength has already helped them to weather every storm.

“Philanthropy, many times comes like they're saving people in Puerto Rico,” says Martinez Ramon. “The communities are saving themselves, and that is clear.”

—Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove