5 years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s power grid is fragile


Five years ago, Iraida Quiñones survived Hurricane Maria, one of the worst storms to ever hit Puerto Rico and the deadliest natural disaster to hit US territory in 100 years.

On Friday, she was bracing for Tropical Storm Fiona, which was expected to bring heavy rain and winds – and a hurricane threat – to the island over the weekend.

“That’s what scared us, that it was the same date as Maria,” said Quiñones, 87, who lives in San Juan, in his native Spanish. “We associate those kinds of bad times with Maria.”

By late Sunday morning, Fiona had upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane.

For Quiñones and other Puerto Ricans, the continued fragility of Puerto Rico’s power grid five years later is an ongoing source of concern in a region that expects the possibility of hurricanes each fall.

“Our network may be functional, but it’s fragile,” said Sergio Marxuach, policy director at the Center for a New Economy, a Puerto Rico-based nonpartisan think tank, adding that the slightest windstorm can easily lead to the loss of electricity to nearly 500,000 homes. .

“Five years later, we’re still at the same risk,” said Marxuach, who recently completed an analysis of the state of Puerto Rico’s power system. “Progress will continue to be slow unless we find a solution” so that all federal and local agencies involved coordinate better with each other.

Hato Rey resident Vanelis Rodriguez said she “expects the power to go out” this weekend on Fiona because “we all know how the electrical system works here.”

Puerto Rico’s patched-up electrical grid is continuously acting up, causing constant blackouts and brownouts across the island, even in the absence of weather events.

On Sunday afternoon, an island-wide blackout was reported as Fiona’s eye approached the southwest coast of Puerto Rico. “The electrical system is currently out of service”, Governor Pedro Pierluisi confirmed on Twitter.

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. The high-end Category 4 hurricane’s roaring winds decimated the island’s fragile and badly deteriorated electrical system, triggering the second longest blackout in the world.

At least 2,975 people died in the aftermath of Maria, and most of those deaths were attributed to lack of electricity and subsequent interruptions to medical and other services. The outage didn’t just affect residences; nursing homes and hospitals were left without electricity for long periods of time.

According to a study published this month by the British Medical Journal Open.

More than 200,000 people left Puerto Rico for the mainland in the aftermath of Maria, mostly due to the prolonged lack of power after the storm’s devastation.

“I had no electricity, no generator, food shortages. It was difficult, very difficult,” said Quiñones, who left the island two weeks after the storm hit and stayed with her sons on the mainland for several months.

“The emergency power restoration after Hurricane Maria took more than a year,” said Josué Colón, executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the bankrupt public company that manages the generation units of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. electricity on the island.

“We live ready”

Residents like Rodriguez have experienced longer service recovery times, poor customer service and voltage fluctuations that often damage appliances and other home electronics since June, when Luma Energy, a privately held Canada-US company, took over Puerto Rico’s power transmission and distribution system, according to an analysis by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit research organization.

Puerto Rico depends mainly on imported oil to supply its electricity. There has been some progress, led mostly by nonprofit groups and several private companies, to use renewable energy, primarily solar panels to counter the tenuous power grid.

Although the Biden administration and the island government have set a goal of reaching 100% renewable electricity by 2050, renewable energy production is currently less than 4%.

Puerto Rico faces major damage after Hurricane Maria
A flooded street in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 25, 2017.File Joe Raedle/Getty Images

During a recent congressional hearing on stimulus efforts, Shay Bahramirad, senior vice president of Luma Energy, said the company had done more in the past 15 months to increase energy efficiency than had been done over the past decade, including connecting more customers to solar power.

But for most islanders, widespread blackouts and the roar of generators have become the norm in Puerto Rico.

Quiñones even lost power on Thursday, days before Tropical Storm Fiona hit Puerto Rico. She said she turned on her generator and waited for the power to come back.

But for many Puerto Ricans like Rodriguez, who don’t have access to or can’t afford a generator, constantly plunging into darkness is often a reminder of how slowly Puerto Rico is rebuilding.

“We live ready,” Rodriguez, 35, said. “We always make sure we have a supply of batteries, oil lamps, water.”

A few weeks ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency made $9.5 billion available to Puerto Rico to rebuild its power grid, the largest public infrastructure project ever.

Only 40 power grid reconstruction projects have been approved so far, all of which are expected to be funded with this assistance, said Anne Bink, associate administrator for FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery, at the hearing. Congress Thursday.

A dark street in San Juan after a major power outage on April 6, 2022.
A dark street in San Juan after a major power outage on April 6, 2022.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP-Getty Images

Hurricane Maria left $90 billion in damage. Congress has allocated at least $71 billion for general recovery and reconstruction operations, of which $62 billion has been made available to the island.

About 72% of those funds have yet to reach local communities, mostly because permanent reconstruction work on the island began in late 2020, according to Representative Jenniffer Gonzalez, a nonvoting member of Congress from Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has already spent $19.9 billion in aid, according to the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Residency.

The Public Financial Management and Oversight Board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances said the rest of the reconstruction aid is expected to be disbursed after fiscal year 2025.

Meanwhile, residents were bracing for another tropical storm, albeit less destructive than Hurricane Maria.

“What happened with Maria was so violent and a lot of the island hasn’t recovered yet,” Quiñones said.

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