- Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images
The lights are out for the fifth day in Puerto Rico.
The island is almost entirely without electricity in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which barreled across the US territory nearly a week ago.
Within hours of touching down as a Category 4 storm on Wednesday morning, Maria wiped out what remained of Puerto Rico’s already vulnerable and storm-ravaged electric grid.
Of the more than 1 million Puerto Ricans who had seen their power cut by Hurricane Irma, some 70,000 still hadn’t seen the lights come back on as Maria closed in.
About 24 hours after the storm hit, the prognosis for the island remained bleak, with officials estimating that it would take a minimum of four months to revive the grid.
“The San Juan we knew yesterday is no longer there,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told MSNBC on Thursday. “We’re looking at four to six months without electricity.”
The situation on the ground is continuing to escalate as of Monday afternoon, although power was successfully restored to two hospitals – Centro Medico Hospital in San Juan and San Pablo Hospital in Bayamon, a Federal Emergency Management Agency representative told Business Insider.
“I have seen a lot damage in the 32 years that I have been in this business, and from this particular perspective, it’s about as large a scale damage as I have ever seen,” Wendul G. Hagler II, a brigadier general in the National Guard, which is helping the island respond to the disaster, told Bloomberg on Monday.
Power is a key component of any area’s infrastructure – it supplies cool air during a heat wave, keeps life-preserving hospital equipment running, and allows people to charge phones that they need to communicate. A region’s power infrastructure can tell you a lot about its capacity to withstand a devastating event like a hurricane, according to Vivek Shandas, an urban-planning professor at Portland State University.
After Hurricane Irma lashed Florida and caused power outages throughout the state, eight people trapped in a nursing home died after the facility’s backup generator failed to come online to power the air conditioning. That was a failure on the part of the nursing home and the larger region to plan for a natural disaster, Shandas said. Still, it wasn’t shocking, since most parts of the US badly need to update levees, buildings, transit hubs, and power lines, he said.
“Generally speaking, the US gets about a D+ for things like this,” Shandas said. “Much of our infrastructure was built in the late 1800s, and it’s beginning to fall apart.”
Puerto Rico’s grid was struggling long before the storm hit, however.
The island is essentially bankrupt and has reportedly been cutting corners for years by under-funding its electric infrastructure. Some of Puerto Rico’s power problems may also be linked to geographic misfortune – the bulk of its power plants are located on its difficult-to-access south coast, which was hit hardest by the storm.
— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) September 25, 2017
Reviving the grid and making it more resilient to future storms is likely going to be a long-term, billion-dollar project, Kenneth Buell, a director at the US Department of Energy, told Bloomberg.
“We are only a couple of days in from the storm – there could be lots of issues and confusion at the beginning of something like this,” he said. “We are in the phase where we have people queued up and lining up resources.”