Big Pharma was ready for Fiona, but Puerto Rico’s government wasn't

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Big Pharma was prepared for Hurricane Fiona. Why wasn’t Puerto Rico’s government?

When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico five years ago this week, the effects went far beyond the island itself. The storm shut down production in one of the island’s most important sectors, pharmaceutical manufacturing, causing nationwide shortages of lifesaving drugs and saline IV bags.

When another hurricane, Fiona, dumped upward of 30 inches of rain on the island this week — and at one point plunged the entire island into darkness — there was a risk that history would repeat itself in the industry responsible for three-quarters of Puerto Rico’s export revenues. But so far, the island’s drug-manufacturing facilities seem to have weathered the storm with few problems. It’s a clear win both for the pharmaceutical companies themselves and for the patients in the U.S. and elsewhere — but it also demonstrates how uneven adaptation to extreme weather, and climate change more generally, can be.

In the years since Maria, while the huge pharma companies originally lured to the island by tax incentives hardened themselves and shored up buildings and supply chains to prepare for the next storm, Puerto Rico’s power grid has seemingly gone downhill. Routine outages have led to widespread dissatisfaction and public protests. Though the proliferation of small solar power systems may help the island recover faster from Fiona than it did five years ago, the latest storm has made clear that big, top-down investments and reforms have progressed too slowly to keep up with more-damaging storms climate change is starting to unleash.

Hardened supply chain

To be clear, Fiona is not Maria. The devastating 2017 storm made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane (after slight weakening from a Category 5, the most severe level), while Fiona’s wind speeds put it as a Category 1 or 2 as it passed over Puerto Rico. But the long-standing hurricane scale is increasingly less useful in a warming world — the wind speeds it uses to classify storms are important. But as the atmosphere gets warmer, it can hold more moisture — and thus unleash more rain. With Fiona, the rain is the thing, with 20 to 30 inches inundating parts of the island and flooding out roads.

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But the pharmaceutical supply chain issues seen immediately after Maria have not — at least as of yet, in the early days — reared their head.

“Our facilities in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic sustained little to no damage from the current storm,” said Lauren Russ, a spokesperson for Baxter, a company that was forced to limit shipments of basic healthcare products like dextrose and saline in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Russ said the company has made “significant changes” since that storm, including investments in physical infrastructure as well as adjustments to how inventory is managed, with investments to its overall manufacturing network totaling at least $1 billion. “Due to our enhanced hurricane preparedness plans, we can run on generator power for an extended period and have fuel supplies in place,” she said.

Other companies report similar situations. “Since Hurricane Maria, our Puerto Rico manufacturing site has further strengthened its preparedness and resiliency efforts,” said Molly McCully, a spokesperson for Eli Lilly. “Thus far, there have been no disruptions to our site or supply.”

A statement from Johnson & Johnson provided to Grid also reported no major issues, with all sites on the island expected to be up and running soon after the rain stopped falling.

Still, the situation is far from perfect. Erin Fox, the senior director of drug and information support services at the University of Utah Health, told Grid that the specific drugs and products made at the facilities in Puerto Rico often are not disclosed. “It seems like ‘Groundhog Day,’” she said. “It’s really frustrating to not know which products are made in specific locations so that you can start making clinical plans and understand the potential impact.”

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Public versus private

Though it may be problematic to simply have to take the drug industry’s word for it that Fiona will not cause significant disruptions, it does appear that the companies’ willingness to spend after Maria has improved the situation.

“Companies have spent a lot of money investing in their own resiliency,” said Tom Cotter, executive director of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit founded by drug manufacturers and related companies to help safeguard supply and care during emergencies. “I think that we right now have a pretty strong health and medical supply chain. What worries me is that the infrastructure of Puerto Rico has not been repaired in the past five years.”

The most glaring infrastructure issue remains the electric grid. After the massive, extended failures after Maria, with some customers remaining without power for a year or more, repairing and upgrading the electrical system in Puerto Rico was a priority. But even before Fiona, it was not going well.

The federal government earmarked a total of $12 billion to rebuild and strengthen the grid in Maria’s wake, but little has been spent so far, and fights continue over how to distribute the money. In June 2021, Puerto Rico turned management of its grid over to a private consortium called Luma Energy — and the situation got even worse. Blackouts have plagued the island, with reports blaming a lack of experienced workers, among other things.

Late last year, thousands of people took to the streets to protest, blocking highways in San Juan; in April of this year, the entire island went dark thanks to a fire in some aging infrastructure. Luma “is on probation with me,” Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi told CBS News recently. “I am not satisfied at the moment.”

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As of this writing, several days after Fiona’s rain stopped, more than 1 million of Puerto Rico’s nearly 1.5 million electric customers remain without power. With the government failing, many in Puerto Rico have turned to small solar installations as a way to reduce reliance on the grid; by the start of this year, more than 42,000 such systems were in place, eight times as many as in 2016.

Of course, taking oneself off the public grid won’t be an option for everyone, whether with a small collection of solar panels or a huge manufacturing facility’s backup generators. Clearly, the ravages of a changing climate require massive adaptation investment both publicly and privately, and it is perhaps unsurprising that those two tracks do not tend to keep pace.

“I think the lesson learned is that we need to incorporate our lessons learned faster,” Cotter said, noting that even with private investment, those pharmaceutical companies won’t succeed forever with failing public infrastructure around them. “We’ve got to incorporate resiliency in every single thing that we do, because this is just going to get worse.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Dave Levitan
    Dave Levitan

    Climate Reporter

    Dave Levitan is a climate reporter for Grid where he focuses on interconnected stories about climate and science, and politics shaping action around both.