More than a million customers in Puerto Rico were left without power on Thursday after a fire at a main power plant caused the largest power outage so far this year in the United States, forcing it to cancel courses and closing government offices.
The blackout also left some 160,000 customers without water and hampered traffic across the island of 3.2 million people, where the roar of generators and the smell of diesel filled the air.
Those who could not afford generators and suffered from medical conditions such as diabetes, which depends on chilled insulin, worried about how long they would be without electricity.
Luma, the company that took over transmission and distribution from Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority last year, said the outage could have been caused by a circuit breaker outage Wednesday at the Costa Sur generating station – one of the four main power stations on the island.
“The system is being restored little by little,” said Kevin Acevedo, vice president of Luma, adding that the company is trying to complete the work within 24 hours. “The people of Puerto Rico need to understand that this is a system that has been going on for many years. Bringing Puerto Rico’s system back is a delicate and complicated process.
Luma said the exact cause of the outage is unknown.
“This is going to require a thorough investigation,” Acevedo said, adding that the equipment whose failure started the fire had been properly maintained.
Officials said at least three generation units were back online Thursday, with crews working to restore more. The outage occurred two months before the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, raising serious concerns about the state of Puerto Rico’s power grid.
“Yes, the system is fragile, nobody denies it, but we are ready,” Acevedo said.
Police were stationed at major intersections to help direct traffic Thursday while health officials visited hospitals to make sure generators were still working.
The outage further infuriated Puerto Ricans already frustrated by an electrical system flattened by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Emergency repairs were carried out at the time, but reconstruction efforts have yet to begin, and the Power company officials blame aging and poorly maintained infrastructure for the ongoing outages. .
A series of strong earthquakes that struck southern Puerto Rico, where the Costa Sur plant is located, also damaged it.
The Electric Power Authority is also trying to restructure $9 billion in public debt to emerge from a long bankruptcy. The company has struggled for decades with corruption, mismanagement and lack of maintenance.
In June last year, a large fire at a substation in the capital city of San Juan left hundreds of thousands of people without power. Another fire at a power plant in September 2016 triggered an island-wide blackout.