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United States

Chaos reigns in Puerto Rico, still blacked out five days after Hurricane Maria

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 6:39am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 8:44am

A nursing home in San Juan desperately pleaded for diesel as its power generator ran low. An elderly man was carried out on a stretcher after going a week without dialysis. Children wearing nothing but diapers camped out on balconies to stay cool.

Hurricane Maria, which smashed into the island five days ago and devastated the power grid run by Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, couldn’t have come at a worse time.

This is Puerto Rico’s hottest time of the year and virtually no one has air conditioning. Crews have descended upon the island to begin the arduous task of resurrecting what was already an ageing and long-neglected system. But that will take weeks, if not months – meaning more sleepless nights for those like Juan Bautista Gonzalez.

“It’s brutal,” said Gonzalez, a 36-year-old carpenter who was sitting on a stoop in Old San Juan rubbing his forehead in frustration. “No one can sleep. I spend all night tossing and turning. This is chaos.”

The destruction that Maria exacted upon Puerto Rico’s fragile electricity system when it slammed ashore as a Category 4 storm is unprecedented – not just for the island but for all of the US.

More than half of the territory’s towers may be down, at least 90 per cent of its distribution lines damaged or destroyed and almost all overhead transmission lines affected, according to the American Public Power Association and Energy Department. All told, Maria could end up resulting in US$40 billion to US$85 billion in insured losses across the Caribbean.

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In the 32 years that National Guard Brigadier General Wendul G Hagler II has served, he said, “It’s about as large a scale damage as I have ever seen.” Hagler visited the US Virgin Islands just before Maria hit.

For an indication of how long it will take for Puerto Rico to rebuild the system, Governor Ricardo Rossello points to Hurricane Hugo, a powerful storm that ravaged the region in 1989. Some had electricity within two months of Hugo. Others spent six months waiting. “It’s a gradual thing,” Rossello told reporters on Sunday. “You have to be careful not to alarm people.”

The lack of phone and internet access isn’t helping. Puerto Ricans pulled over along motorways over the weekend to take advantage of the rare spots where cellular service was available. They called into the few radio stations still working in an attempt to connect with relatives.

To make matters worse: Puerto Rico’s power plants seem inexplicably clustered along the island’s south coast, a hard-to-reach region that was left exposed to all of Maria’s wrath, said Kenneth Buell, a director at the US Energy Department who is helping lead the federal response in Puerto Rico.

A chain of high-voltage lines thrown across the island’s mountainous middle connect those plants to the cities in the north.

As of late Monday, two power plants were available to generate power but couldn’t deliver because transmission was down, the Energy Department said in a report. Two others were severely affected by Maria’s floodwaters.

Puerto Rico’s rich hydropower resources have also taken a hit. On Friday, the National Weather Service pleaded for people to evacuate an area in the northwest corner of the island after a dam failed. The rest of the dam is still at risk of bursting.

And that’s not to mention the state of Puerto Rico’s grid before the storm. Government-owned Prepa, operating under court protection from creditors, has more than US$8 billion in debt but little to show for it. Even before the storm, outages were common, and the median plant age is 44 years, more than twice the industry average.

“Under normal circumstances, without an emergency,” Rossello said, it would’ve taken Prepa as long as two years to rebuild its network. “And that’s being aggressive,” he said.

At this point, the National Guard is looking to clear enough debris for utility workers to move around. Almost 1,400 National Guard personnel are involved in the response in Puerto Rico, moving food and water, helping local law enforcement and supplying engineering support to access infrastructure.

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More response crews were expected to arrive Monday. Their biggest priority will be to restore power to essential services – the airport, water infrastructure and hospitals, Buell said.

It won’t be easy. The supply chains the island once relied on to shuttle fuel oil and natural gas to generators, the source of the vast majority of the island’s power, have been destroyed. The Energy Department was looking for alternative sources. Some agencies are capable of flying in fuel.

While there are enough US-flagged vessels to send commodities to Puerto Rico, “the limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit,” the Department of Homeland Security said by email Monday.

The agency has in the past suspended a law that limits the kinds of tankers allowed to move between US ports, but it noted the “situation in Puerto Rico is much different.”

Once critical resources have regained power, crews will start the long process of getting power plants back online and rebuilding transmission and power lines.

“Our goal is not just to get things back to normal, but to use the resources at our disposal to rebuild Puerto Rico better than before – to have better infrastructure that can mitigate these effects,” Rossello said. The island wants to “take what we knew was weak infrastructure in areas like electricity and make certain that we don’t just get it back on line and leave it just as vulnerable.”