Puerto Rico blackout.
Published on: Jul 10, 2019

DisemPOWERed: Puerto Rico's Perfect Storm,” a film that examines the reasons why Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, will premiere at Penn State. The screening will occur at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, in Foster Auditorium in Pattee Library.

Following the screening there will be a panel discussion. It will feature the filmmakers, two visiting scholars from University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez and two Penn State faculty members. The screening and the panel discussion are free and open the public.

Sandy Smith-Nonini, one of the filmmakers, said she wanted to make the film to tell the story of what happened in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria and investigate why the blackout happened and how it could last so long.

“We look at the issues beyond bad maintenance — bad maintenance was at the heart of why the grid failed — but we try to look at why PREPA (Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority) got so in debt,” Smith-Nonini said. “Part of our story is a look at the scandals that created that and the role of Wall Street and Big Oil in perpetuating their debt and growing it during the period when they could least afford it.”

Cecilio Ortiz García, a professor of political science at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez who appears in the film, said this documentary effectively identifies the pre-Maria political, economic and ecological vulnerabilities that gave way to the disaster that is remembered as the largest blackout in U.S. history.

“The movie does a great job in not concentrating on the extreme weather event, but rather points to the hurricane's role as revealer of this seemingly ‘hidden’ extreme operating conditions Puerto Rico as an archipelago was already under,” said García.

García and Marla Pérez-Lugo, a professor of environmental sociology at University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, are co-founders of the National Institute for Energy and Island Sustainability of the University of Puerto Rico. They are featured in “DisemPOWERed” as experts in Puerto Rico's energy governance and policy.

“I think it was important to have a cross-section of Puerto Rican narratives and stories about the blackout, PREPA and the island government’s role in it,” García said.

“The documentary also presents that the main victims of this Ponzi scheme are the ones that are excluded the most from the decision-making processes: the poor, the elderly, the sick, the ones living in rural areas,” Pérez-Lugo said. “The filmmakers interviewed local administrators, and academics as well as a former member of PREPA’s board to provide a comprehensive explanation for the disaster and the loss of thousands of Puerto Ricans. I think that this is a very important story to be told.”

In addition to Smith-Nonini, García and Pérez-Lugo, the panel will include:

  • Roque Nonini, photographer and filmmaker
  • Chiara Lo Prete, assistant professor of energy economics, Penn State
  • Alexis Santos, assistant professor of health and human development, Penn State

Lara Fowler, assistant director for outreach and engagement for the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE), will moderate the panel.

The film is being supported by IEE, Hamer Center for Community Design, University Libraries, Sustainability Institute, Arts and Design Research Incubator, and the Center for Climate Risk Management.