From the Rubble
Puerto Rico's Storm-Battered Infrastructure Needs a Massive Project Investment
Puerto Rico's infrastructure woes began long ago. But a series of earthquakes this year coupled with hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017—which racked up US$139 billion in damage—exacerbated the U.S. territory's already underfunded and outdated system.
In its 2019 Report Card for Puerto Rico's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. territory's overall infrastructure a “poor: at risk” grade. None of the eight categories assessed in the report—bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, ports, roads, solid waste and wastewater—earned higher than a “poor” rating.
Puerto Rico's energy infrastructure earned the report's lone failing grade. In October, Puerto Rico unveiled a US$20 billion, 10-year plan to rebuild and futureproof the island's power network. Goals of the program include burying power lines, creating systems that can withstand high-speed winds and diversifying the energy mix on an island that is 98 percent reliant on fossil fuels.
“The energy infrastructure is in critical condition,” says Héctor J. Colón De La Cruz, engineer and ASCE Puerto Rico section president, San Juan, Puerto Rico, USA. The most glaring issues? Poor resiliency, frequent blackouts, high rates and unreliability, he says. “It cannot withstand another hurricane.”
Hurricane Maria decimated the island's electrical grid, resulting in the second-largest blackout ever recorded. Emergency repairs to restore power as quickly as possible failed to address long-term sustainability. Puerto Rico's fragile energy infrastructure “poses an immediate threat to public health, economic development and global competitiveness,” Mr. Colón De La Cruz says. Rebuilding it will require developing resilient grid operations, boosting system capacity and revising design standards to comply with modern industry codes, he says.
Water projects are needed, too. Despite significant annual rainfall, many residents must ration water nearly every year. In part this is because an estimated 58 percent of non-revenue water—water that is pumped but then lost or unaccounted for—disappears in an outdated system plagued by leaky pipes and tank overflows.
Landfills also are overflowing. Irma and Maria left behind some 2.5 million tons of debris, and where it will go remains a major concern. In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the island's active landfills would reach capacity in less than five years.
Electrical workers in Puerto Rico attempt to repair power lines after Hurricane Maria.
In order to sustain economic growth and competitiveness, the ASCE recommends Puerto Rico up its infrastructure investment by as much as US$23 billion over the next decade—a gap that doesn't include spending on hurricane recovery projects. Yet as of November, Puerto Rico had received only about US$14 billion of the US$42.5 billion appropriated by the U.S. government for hurricane relief. Nonetheless, Mr. Colón De La Cruz sees the ASCE report as a blueprint for a better future with improved quality of life—and a way to attract infrastructure investment.
“This is an opportunity to reshape the way we think and address our infrastructure,” he says.
One way to ensure federal funds would be spent wisely is to show that project leaders will have a firm grasp on budget and risk. The first step is to create both short- and long-term, comprehensive infrastructure plans that adopt strong life cycle cost analyses, Mr. Colón De La Cruz says. Those plans also will need to follow strict maintenance schedules and incorporate climate-resilient materials.
“We have done what we can with the funds we have, but now we need the federal agencies to distribute the money as intended,” he says. “I believe we have an opportunity here to make our island more resilient and sustainable, improve our economy and be better prepared for when the next disaster strikes.” —Jennifer Thomas