U.S. Secret Service Chatanooga, TN, resident agent in charge Juan Alicea was in the midst of his Center for Homeland Defense and Security Master’s Program studies when Hurricane Maria slammed into his native Puerto Rico in September 2017.
Alicea (Master’s Program cohort 1705/1706) watched from afar as the deadly Category 5 hurricane’s 150-mile winds and 25 inches of rain destroyed the island’s power grid, leaving 100 percent of the already decrepit and debt-ridden government-run power company’s customers, including many hospitals, without power as well as water and cell phone service for up to six months in some areas and even longer in the more isolated regions. Even hospitals that relied on diesel generators to operate soon found themselves short on fuel due to port and distribution system challenges amid a much-criticized U.S. emergency response effort.
Considered the worst natural disaster in recorded history to affect Puerto Rico and other nearby Caribbean islands, the hurricane’s devastation led to nearly 3,000 deaths on the island—most traced back to the lack of electricity that crippled medical and emergency services, communications, and basic utilities—and cost an estimated $91.6 billion in damage.
Alicea, who still has family and friends living in Puerto Rico and visits there frequently, said the devastation and especially the stagnant power grid recovery spurred him to action, prompting him to focus his CHDS master’s thesis on the need to prioritize improving the island’s power grid’s resiliency as a matter of national security.
“[Hurricane Maria] was a catastrophe,” Alicea said. “The power grid was in shambles and neglected for years, and Puerto Rico was caught totally off-guard, totally unprepared. But the real issue was the lack of an adequate recovery. The deaths due to a lack of power, I took personally.”
Titled “Puerto Rico’s Homeland Security Readiness: Redesigning the Island’s Power Grid to Improve its Resiliency and Efficiency,” Alicea’s thesis didn’t focus on new methods of making Puerto Rico’s power grid “invulnerable” to hurricanes, but rather “concentrated on suggesting new designs and technological measures to increase its capacity to recover after a catastrophic natural event.”
“Moreover,” he added, “I wanted to place emphasis on the fact that grid security and resiliency was a mandate of national security implications.”
In November 2022, more than three years after Alicea’s thesis was approved for public release, he received a message from Maurizio Larranaga, Engineer and Senior Project Manager for LUMA Energy of Puerto Rico—the new private conglomerate that took over the power grid. Charged with leading a strategic modernization initiative aimed at strengthening the island’s power grid, Larranaga said he had run into roadblocks with governmental and private sector policymakers, whom Alicea described as “politicians who wanted to save a buck here and there,” and wanted to discuss Alicea’s thesis, which interested him because it “focused on the importance of power grid resiliency as a national security issue, not a mere … economical or political problem,” Alicea said.
According to Alicea, Larranaga’s use of his CHDS master’s thesis “served as leverage” to further enhance Larranaga’s own arguments and led LUMA management and local policymakers to support, and ultimately approve, the comprehensive restructuring of the Puerto Rico power grid. Alicea added that his thesis is also now used as reference material by the power company.
Alicea said specific parts of his thesis were used to buttress Larranaga’s argument, including the following passages:
“The prospect of a new power grid is not simply a question of opportunity or need, … it is also part of homeland security mandate. The Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR) to Congress provides an analytic and strategic foundation for how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operates and accomplishes its mission.”
“[Hurricane Maria] was a catastrophe. The power grid was in shambles and neglected for years, and Puerto Rico was caught totally off-guard, totally unprepared. But the real issue was the lack of an adequate recovery. The deaths due to a lack of power, I took personally.”– Juan Alicea
“Based on DHS’s strategic mission and PPD 21, the power grid in Puerto Rico must be studied to identify the crux of its vulnerabilities, develop solutions that can increase response and recovery efforts, and construct a more robust sustainable power grid—all within the context of Puerto Rico’s financial predicament and geographical location.”
Alicea’s thesis notes a “roadmap” for improving Puerto Rico’s power grid, which he argues could be used as a “test bed for new technology, systems, and protocols that may affect other jurisdictions under similar economic circumstance and natural hazards.” His thesis also incorporates a series of measures designed to increase power grid resiliency that he said can be used to improve power grid resiliency, including the use of new technology in the form of renewable energy production and storage, insertion of the smart grid concept, and establishment of independent microgrid systems, as well as ocean tidal power and solar power.
Alicea was born and raised in a small rural town on the west coast of a Puerto Rican island called Aguada, then joined the Navy as a Corpsman, was deployed in the 1991 Gulf War, was attached to two naval bases in Puerto Rico, then earned his bachelor’s degree and received an officer’s commission as a Navy Nurse, and later left the military to work for the U.S. Border Patrol before joining the U.S. Secret Service more than two decades ago.
He said he has personally witnessed many hurricanes while living in Puerto Rico, although nothing the size of Hurricane Maria, and says he understands natural disasters and power failures are “inevitable,” and not just in Puerto Rico.
“You can’t prevent natural disasters from devastating the power grid whether it’s a hurricane in Puerto Rico or an earthquake in California or a flood or a tornado,” he said, “but you can recover quicker.”