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

The latest storm highlights the public-private disparities in adaptation to climate change and extreme weather.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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