Friday, July 19, 2019

[Editorial] A Hurricane Called Denial

By on July 13, 2018

Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in the July 12-18 print issue of Caribbean Business

It seems like only yesterday that this newspaper published a special report titled “Are We Ready for the Big One?” which looked at the state of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) weeks before Hurricane Irma skirted the island’s north coast and Maria cut a swath of devastation across the entire island. The core question asked of Prepa field workers and administrative personnel in that report: “How would Prepa’s decrepit power grid hold up in the face of a Harvey-sized system?”—drew responses seemingly too extreme to fathom.

The most disturbingly brutal answer came from a Prepa worker with more than 20 years’ experience in the field, who told Caribbean Business: “If a hurricane like this one [Harvey] hits us, the system is not going to come online, I’d say, in over six months. Right now, the warehouses don’t even have the materials. I’m talking about the utility poles and other stuff.”

“Did he say six months; I think he meant six weeks?” was a common question among our editorial board as we discussed the story. Then Maria hit, forcing us all to face those hard truths.

Unfortunately, we occasionally delude ourselves through exercises in self-deception as a defense mechanism to survive. In his seminal treatise on the logic of deceit and self-deception in human life, titled “The Folly of Fools,” anthropology and biological sciences Prof. Robert Trivers explains “that so powerful is the tendency to rationalize that negative evidence is often immediately greeted with criticism, distortion and dismissal, so that not much dissonance be suffered, nor change of opinion be required.”

Unfortunately, self-deception has very negative consequences when it leads to making the same mistakes. Prior to Irma, Ricardo Ramos, who was still fresh in his post as Prepa executive director, had an epiphany of sorts when he let on that if we lost 100 transmission lines during Hurricane Georges (Category 3) in 1998, we would lose more than 1,000 lines if a Category-5 storm were to hit us now. If only Ramos knew the total devastation that lay ahead for him to mend.

In the weeks that followed Maria’s complete devastation of Puerto Rico’s power grid, Ramos and his operations brigades spent all their time holed up at Prepa headquarters and fielding questions, the answers to which were too difficult to fathom. Nobody was prepared, we got caught with our pants down, how did we get here? Privately, Ramos knew the real answers to those questions, but it wasn’t part of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s communications playbook devised by some rather misguided advisers. In the behaviorist Trivers’ view: “The need for cognitive-dissonance reduction is post-hoc rationalization of decisions that can no longer be changed.” As happened when the administration abandoned protocol in failing to line up Mutual Assistance from the American Public Power Association prior to the onslaught of Maria. The pre-disaster playbook calls for a checklist to ascertain proper alignment of resources and specialized equipment. That way, when the energy cavalry arrives, the troops are not forced to sit around campfires for lack of equipment.

In the end, the truth is always known. As pertains to Prepa, it came out piecemeal—sometimes anecdotally, sometimes much like the discovery of Penicillin—by accident. A special report filed by this newspaper in December 2017, lay threadbare Prepa’s dire state: Three months after the storm, only some 6,228 poles of the 52,480 needed had arrived; add to that total, 17 million conductors that were needed, of which only 347,000 had arrived, and there were only 7,639 insulators when 184,750 were needed.

Sadly, here we are nearly a year later and the first waft of wind—a Category-1 hurricane named Beryl, which fizzled to a Tropical Depression over the Lesser Antilles prior to its passing over Puerto Rico—interrupted power at more than 45,000 homes. The truth is that although the island’s grid underwent some improvements to its transmission and distribution lines, the system is far from “storm-hardened.”

In an interview for that Special Report on Prepa, José Ortiz Vázquez, a former executive director of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority and former Prepa chairman, explained basic tenets of storm-hardening. The ideal blueprint? Ortiz offered: “Electric poles with the highest voltage made of metal as high as possible; surroundings of distribution lines free of trees; distribution in critical areas underground; a microgrid in eastern Puerto Rico and the installation of ‘three-fuel’ units at existing locations that can come back online in 8-minutes’ time.”

The ideal power grid could be done in five years’ time—denying that storm-hard truth is a Hurricane we can ill afford at this post-traumatic juncture.

Are we ready for the big one?

Caribbean Business uncovers the true state of the power utility’s inventory

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