Darkness: life in Puerto Rico without electricity
Puerto Rico’s misery won’t end without power. The problem is that it isn’t getting any.
ADJUNTAS, Puerto Rico — In the final frantic days before Hurricane Maria devastated this small town in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, Rosana Aviles Marin did everything she could to help her elderly parents prepare for what was coming.
She brought in food and water, and used plywood to reinforce the walls and roof of their modest two-story cement house. It didn’t matter. The winds of up to 155 miles per hour that roared across the island buckled the house’s walls and tore holes in the ceiling, letting in water that destroyed furniture, framed photos of Marin and her siblings, and brightly colored ceramic statues of Jesus.
That wasn’t all it destroyed. The storm also downed power lines throughout the area, and Marin and her parents have been entirely without electricity for weeks. Much of their food went bad, they have no cellphone service, and local markets and restaurants remain closed. Her parents use a small diesel generator to power lights and, for a few hours per day, a small refrigerator. The rest of the time, she tells me during a recent trip to the area, “my parents live in darkness.”
They aren’t the only ones. Hurricane Maria, one of the strongest ever to hit Puerto Rico, caused unprecedented damage to the island’s already fragile power grid. Four weeks after making landfall, roughly 79 percent of the island still doesn’t have electricity.
Local and federal officials say it will be months before the power is fully restored, and they acknowledge that in some places it could take far longer because their crews have yet to even reach the hardest-hit areas. The head of Puerto Rico’s debt-ridden power utility saysrepairs will cost $5 billion; some officials privately tell me the figure will be far higher.
With the national grid down for the foreseeable future, generators are in such high demand that their prices have skyrocketed, putting them out of reach of many average Puerto Ricans. There are regular reports of generators being stolen from outside homes and businesses.
Walking through the walled neighborhood of Old San Juan, the island’s main tourist attraction, I see police officers installing floodlights in a central square and then flipping on a shiny new generator. One of the officers tells me he’ll be there all night to keep an eye on the equipment. “It would otherwise be gone by morning,” he says, shrugging.
Electricity is something you don’t notice until it’s gone. On the mainland, where power outages are rare and brief, Americans are used to simply flipping a switch and watching the light come on, plugging in an air conditioner and feeling the cold air, and trusting that your refrigerator will keep fresh food and milk from going bad.
When the power goes out, that sense of comfort quickly disappears. The parts of daily life that were once taken for granted are suddenly gone, with no clear sense of when they’ll be back. To not have power — to be literally and figuratively in the dark — is to leave the modern world and retreat into an older and more precarious one. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, that’s Puerto Rico’s new normal.
The lack of electricity doesn’t simply mean months of hardship for the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican who will be without air conditioners, fans, televisions, and refrigerators for the foreseeable future. It’s also significantly slowing the entire US relief effort, and preventing other vital parts of the island’s battered infrastructure from coming back online.
Internet and cellphone service can’t be fully restored without a steady flow of electricity to individual cell towers. The pumps, filtration systems, and other equipment used to treat sewage and provide clean drinking water also can’t function without power. Right now, those plants aren’t receiving much of it.
“People need to understand this is not something that can be turned on tomorrow,” José Sánchez, who is leading the Army Corps of Engineers’ program to restore the grid, tells me in an interview in San Juan. “This something that’s going to take months to fix. We’re dealing with a very tender system, a very sensitive system, and it will require a lot of work to get it back up.”
Sánchez, a soft-spoken man who uses the precise language of a trained engineer, says the Corps could eventually bring at least 500 of its employees to the island, alongside 1,000 private contractors. He was born in Puerto Rico, and says the effort to bring power back is deeply personal for him. The island can’t recover, much less prosper, without it.
“I think of electricity like water, as a basic need and a basic requirement to have a semi-normal life,” he tells me. “Electricity is the linchpin of everything.”
That means the lack of electricity is a literal life-and-death issue — and one that may wind up killing more Puerto Ricans than the storm itself. The island’s government says 48 people died because of the hurricane, but my colleagues Eliza Barclay and Alexia Fernández Campbell estimate that the real death toll from the storm is probably well into the hundreds.
That number could spike even higher if the blackouts continue because the island needs electricity to operate its water and sewage systems; if the grid remains offline, huge numbers of Puerto Ricans will be at real risk of dying from heatstroke, dehydration, or exposure to contaminated water.
In a darkened Puerto Rico, where cellphones don’t work and clean water doesn’t flow, there’s never been more of a need for electricity. It’s also never been in such short supply — or so difficult and expensive to bring back.
Puerto Rico’s power system was a mess before Maria. Now it’s barely clinging to life.
President Trump’s slow and halting response to the Puerto Rico crisis has been widely criticized, with a new poll showing that public approval for Trump’s handling of recent hurricanes has plummeted by 20 points in less than a month. (Trump himself, it should be noted, rates his response as a “10.”)
Trump has also been hammered for a series of recent tweets that appeared to blame Puerto Rico itself for the island’s current woes. One said “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble.” Another said “it’s [sic] old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated.”
But here’s the thing: The substance of what Trump said about the electrical grid was largely correct. The island’s grid is antiquated and hasn’t received any major upgrades in years. Power outages were a regular part of daily life on the island even before the storm (a 2016 report found they were four to five times more common on the island than in the mainland US). Maria has made those shortfalls exponentially worse, but it didn’t cause them.
The reasons have to do with geography and money. Puerto Rico’s biggest power generators are on the south of the island, but most of its inhabitants live on the north side, primarily in San Juan. There are four high-capacity transmission lines that carry power from the south to the north, and they pass through the center part of the island, the region Marin calls home. The problem is that central Puerto Rico is mountainous, full of huge swaths of thick forest, and mainly reachable only by driving on terrifyingly narrow dirt roads.
That makes it hard to reach those four vital lines even in the best of circumstances. In post-Maria Puerto Rico it’s even harder, because the center of the island was the region hardest hit by the hurricane. Since the government is trying to get power to San Juan first, that means those in the regions devastated most by the hurricane will be waiting the longest for power to be restored. Sánchez, the engineer, says workers would need to be flown in by helicopter to clear debris before repairs could even begin. As of now, three of those four lines are inoperable.
The second major problem is a financial one. PREPA, the island’s widely despised electric utility, hasn’t done any major upgrades to the grid in decades. The median age of the island’s power plants is 44 years, more than double the normal industry standard of 18 years, according to a report from FiveThirtyEight. The plants are so old that it’s hard to find replacement parts when individual pieces of equipment break down.
It’s also difficult to find workers who know how to keep that aging equipment up and running. Vox’s Fernández Campbell reported last month that PREPA has lost thousands of workers in recent years, including 600 — fully a tenth of its workforce — this past April alone.
Ricardo Ramos, who runs PREPA, says that bringing the grid back to its pre-Maria state could cost up to $5 billion. The problem is that the utility itself is more than $9 billion in debt and filed for bankruptcy this past summer.
That means money for repairs, let alone upgrades, can only really come from two places.
One is Congress, which passed legislation in mid-October authorizing $36.5 billion in hurricane and wildfire relief. The package included $4.9 billion in loans for Puerto Rico’s cash-strapped government, which filed for a form of bankruptcy in May. Lawmakers from Florida and Texas have indicated that they’re going to ask for tens of billions of dollars more, though it’s not clear if Congress will sign off on the additional money, or how much of it would make its way to Puerto Rico.
The other way to raise funds is through higher rates on the utility’s customers, but the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, which oversees PREPA, might not sign off on them. There are also legitimate concerns that Puerto Ricans, who already pay some of the highest electricity rates in the US and are now facing widespread unemployment because of the storm, won’t be able to afford to pay them.
José Román Morales, the head of the commission, tells me that the island needs to find a way to get the old system back to its pre-Maria state — which would bring power back to desperate citizens sooner — while looking for ways to modernize and upgrade it.
“That’s the main topic of conversation at the moment,” he says. “There’s an emergency that needs to be addressed, and we need to get power to the hospitals and other essential institutions for life on this island. But stopping there isn’t enough. One way or another, we have to make the grid more resilient and energy-efficient.”
Renewable energy is one appealing option, since the island has an abundance of sun and wind. Tesla founder Elon Musk says he can build a new and more efficient grid that would use solar power to generate electricity.
Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló says he wants to talk to Musk in more detail, but it’s notclear who would pay for Musk’s proposed system given that both the electrical utility and the island itself have declared bankruptcy. (Rosselló has also promised to bring power back to 95 percent of the island by Christmas, a deadline US officials here dismiss as unrealistic.)
As Vox’s Umair Irfan notes, building a grid centered on renewable energy would almost certainly be more expensive than reconstituting the flawed system that was there before the storm. That means “the default solution — rebuilding the island’s electrical grid the way it was — may end up becoming the likeliest scenario,” he explains.
For now, the military and civilian officials working to pull Puerto Rico back from the brink are focused on bringing powerful generators to the island. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the three-star Army general leading US military relief efforts in Puerto Rico, says civilian personnel are surveying hospitals, water plants, and sewage treatment facilities to find out which facilities have generators that are already working, which have ones in of need repair, and which don’t have any at all.
“If they don’t have a generator, do they need one, and can we bring one in?” he tells me. “And when we talk generators, I’m not talking your little Honda one. I’m talking about massive generators, like the size of a semi-truck.”
FEMA has already installed 100 generators at individual hospitals, sewage treatment plants, and water pumping facilities. It plans to bring in up to 400 more, according to officials on the ground here.
Generators are a short-term fix, however; a permanent solution will take far longer.
That is, in part, because of the technological hurdles to generating renewable energy on the island — especially in the aftermath of the hurricane.
A high-tech wind farm is ready to start producing power. Here’s why it can’t.
On a sweltering day in mid-October, Ruben Rivera drives his cluttered pickup truck down the mottled mud roads that run through his company’s wind farm in Santa Isabel, in the far south of Puerto Rico. As we make our way across the property, Rivera points to row after row of towering white wind turbines.
Built by the German industrial giant Siemens at a cost of more than $2 million apiece and capable of adjusting themselves to keep pace with shifting wind patterns, the 44 wind turbines at Santa Isabel are some of the most advanced on earth. They also, to Rivera’s surprise, made it through the hurricane without a single scratch or dent.
Rivera, who runs the facility on behalf of its owner, California-based Pattern Energy, lives about 90 minutes away from Santa Isabel. He rode out the storm at home with his wife and children, and waited until the worst of the weather had passed before setting off for the wind farm, afraid of what he’d find.
“I was counting the number of turbines on the drive down because I kept thinking that we must have lost some,” he tells me. “But then I saw that they were all still standing, and that they looked intact. We’ve checked the turbines and blades, and I haven’t seen any damage. They’re ready to go”
Rivera stops his pickup truck next to one of the turbines, clambers up a metallic staircase, takes the padlock off a small door, and steps inside the towering structure.
The interior is spotless, with a ladder extending up through a hole in the ceiling that can be used to climb to the very top of the 24-story tower. The power is generated by three long, tapered white blades, and then brought down to the base of the structure by a thick bundle of cables that connect to a large metallic box a few feet from the door. Rivera points to the floor, where other cables carry the power out of the turbine and then onto the grid. There isn’t a speck of dirt, despite the fact that one of the strongest hurricanes in US history roared though the area less than a month ago.
There also isn’t any noise. The turbines are in perfect working order and could be a vital source of energy for the power-starved island. Except that they can’t actually be turned on without a small amount of electricity from the grid — which, of course, isn’t currently capable of providing it.
When the grid eventually comes back online, the wind farm will be able to provide power to about 35,000 homes. Until then, the blades aren’t turning.
Rivera, in the meantime, spends his time checking, and rechecking, each turbine so they can be turned on as soon as the power starts flowing again. He’s on a clock. Siemens, the manufacturer, says the turbines can’t sit idle for more than six weeks without potentially damaging the equipment. The hurricane slammed into Puerto Rico almost a month ago, so each day brings that deadline closer.
“It’s frustrating coming to the site and trying to provide energy to the grid but not being able to because we’re still waiting for the power to come back,” Rivera tells me. “The equipment is ready to go. We’re ready to go. But I don’t know when we’ll be able to start back up again.”
Puerto Rico’s medical system is being reshaped by the hurricane
The lack of electricity is reshaping Puerto Rican life in ways big and small. It’s also forcing many here to improvise solutions to problems they never thought they’d face.
The community health center in Loíza, a small town about 20 minutes outside of San Juan, is a low-slung gray building set just off the main road. When I visit it on a warm, cloudy day in October, the facility is eerily quiet and empty. The TVs are turned off, the information booth is empty, and steel shutters cover the windows of the pharmacy.
The medical center is still in operation, however, though at a severely reduced capacity than it had been before the storm. Dr. María Rodríguez, who runs the facility, has worked there in various capacities for 24 years. She says she expected the storm to be bad but was still taken aback by the hurricane’s destructive power.
She leads me back to her cluttered office, which is filled with overflowing boxes of medical supplies, diapers, baby formula, Purell hand sanitizer, and small packets of children’s multivitamins shaped like gummy bears. A pile of shrink-wrapped sleeping bags sits on the floor near her desk. “My office has become a distribution center,” she says with a half-smile.
In the weeks since the storm, Rodríguez and her staff have worked with Loíza’s municipal government to ensure a steady supply of the diesel needed to power the center’s generators. Most parts of the center — from OB-GYN services to its primary care clinic — are functioning, though for fewer hours and without air conditioning.
The medical center, though, is rapidly changing its normal ways of doing business in order to adapt to the new reality on the ground. Rodríguez tells me that many local residents have lost their homes and are living in large communal shelters. They may not know the medical center is open; even if they do, they often have no way of getting here.
In response, Rodríguez is sending doctors and nurses to the shelters, which are already seeing periodic outbreaks of infectious diseases such as conjunctivitis and parasite-borne skin diseases like scabies. That’s a new approach for the medical center, but Rodríguez feels like she’d be letting down her community if she didn’t experiment with alternative methods of delivering care. “This is our new normal,” she says.
The lack of power is changing life on Puerto Rico. It will take a long time for it to change back.
On the outskirts of Loíza, several concrete pylons that once held power lines lie shattered on the side of the road, a loose tangle of metallic rebar sticking up from the wreckage. Work crews are out installing new wooden poles, but there are dozens — in both directions — that still need to be replaced. The repair work will take weeks, and Loíza is only one small town on an island teeming with larger ones.
Back in San Juan, the only part of the city with steady and reliable electricity is the area surrounding the city’s gleaming convention center, which is now the headquarters for the military and civilian relief effort. The power is also on at the Sheraton hotel across the street, as well as in its bustling casino, which has one of the few ATMs on the island that is still distributing cash.
The light starts to fade as I drive away from the convention center and make my way through blackened streets lined with shuttered restaurants and stores. A small number of houses, office buildings, and apartment buildings have their own generators, but it’s possible to drive for blocks without seeing any lights.
On my last night in Puerto Rico, I have dinner with a businessman who’s lived in San Juan for decades. He’s survived other hurricanes, but he’s not sure the island will bounce back from this one. At 11:15, he excuses himself and says he needs to start heading home to make sure he’s off the roads before the city’s midnight curfew goes into effect. He has a long drive ahead of him, and the trip back always takes longer in the dark.