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Department of Social Anthropology


Dis.em.POWER.ed: Puerto Rico’s Perfect Storm 

Dr Sandy Smith-Nonie (Director) and Roque Nonini  


In the fall of 2017 Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, wiping out the electric grid and plunging 3 million people into the worst blackout in US history.  Roughly 3000 people died in the months after the storm and thousands lived in the dark for nearly a year. In the words of a New York Times report, Puerto Rico “all but slipped from the modern era” (Glanz and Robles 2018).  


How could this happen?  We are a filmmaker and anthropologist who teamed up to tell the story of the root causes behind the long blackout.  We also asked what does it mean when a modern place that has enjoyed electric services for over 50 years is shut down by one extreme climate event.  Are there warnings here for the rest of us?   


Our film, “DisemPOWERed,” finds no “natural” disaster, but instead a “perfect storm” of debt crisis, corruption, manipulation by Big Oil and Wall Street, an electric utility that was bankrupt before Maria, and the burdens of colonialism that has left Puerto Rico with a dying economic model and a legacy of heavy oil dependence.  


This film supports the ongoing citizen’s movements in Puerto Rico to democratize its energy system and make it more resilient. It also serves as a resource to students, educators and the general US public where the consequences of Puerto Rico’s territorial status and its colonial history, are poorly understood .“ 


Dr. Smith-Nonini is an Assistant Research professor at the University of North Carolina. Her current research is focused on the relationship of oil and power - specifically on how oil-dependence and fossil-colonial relations contribute to energy poverty and global inequality, with fieldwork in Puerto Rico and Greece in 2018-19. She is the producer and writer of the documentary film “Dis.em.POWER.ed: Puerto Rico’s Perfect Storm,” released in July 2019 on the causes of the long blackout in Puerto Rico. 


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Link to film info: 


Wednesday, 5 May, 2021 - 19:00
Event location: 
Online - please register