A nursing home in San Juan made desperate pleas 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 six days ago and devastated its power grid, couldn’t have come at a worse time. This is Puerto Rico’s hottest season of the year — and virtually no one has air conditioning. Crews have arrived to begin the arduous task of resurrecting what was already an aging and long-neglected electricity system. But that’ll 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 grid when it slammed ashore as a Category 4 storm is unprecedented. More than half of the territory’s towers may be down, at least 90 percent 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 result in $40 billion to $85 billion in insured losses across the Caribbean.
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.” Just before Maria hit, Hagler visited the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the majority of homes and businesses also remain without power and face a slow recovery.
For an indication of how long it’ll take 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. 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 whole endeavor may be slowed by the island’s weak finances. Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy in May after years of economic decline while a series of defaults has effectively left it unable to raise money in the capital markets. The aging, government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, operating under court protection from creditors, has more than $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.
President Donald Trump on Monday said Puerto Rico “is in deep trouble,” with a devastated electricity grid and billions of dollars owed to Wall Street banks.
“Food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well,” he said on Twitter.
The lack of phone and internet access isn’t helping. Puerto Ricans pulled over along highways over the weekend to take advantage of 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 U.S. Energy Department who is helping lead the federal response. A chain of high-voltage lines thrown across the island’s mountainous middle connect those plants to the cities in the north.
Under normal circumstances it would’ve taken Prepa as long as two years to rebuild its network, Rossello said. “And that’s being aggressive.”
At this point, the National Guard is trying to clear enough debris for utility workers to operate. Almost 1,400 guard members are moving food and water, helping local law enforcement and supplying engineering support to access infrastructure. Their biggest priority is to restore power to essential services — the airport, water infrastructure and hospitals, Buell said.
It won’t be easy. 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, leaving officials searching alternatives.
And while there are enough U.S.-flagged vessels to deliver commodities, “the limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit,” the Department of Homeland Security said by email Monday. Over the weekend some ports had reopened with restrictions.
U.S. Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House’s Armed Services Committee, blasted the Trump administration’s response on Monday as being “wholly inadequate” and called on the White House to assemble a coordinated military effort similar to one organized after Hurricane Katrina.
“A territory of 3.5 million American citizens is almost completely without power, water, food, and telephone service,” Smith said. “It’s a disgrace.”