Darkness: life in Puerto Rico without electricity
by Yochi Dreazen Oct 23, 2017
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 says repairs 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.
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.