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World

Puerto Rico Slowly Emerges from Blackout

The utility is struggling with a $9 billion debt that it hopes to restructure as it faces numerous corruption allegations

Motorists illuminate a storefront with their headlights as they drive in to buy bread after a massive blackout, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, photo: AP/Carlos Giusti
1 year ago

Air conditioners began to whir across Puerto Rico on Friday and electronics beeped to life as power slowly returned to the U.S. territory following an island-wide blackout caused by a fire at a power plant that shut down an aging utility grid.

About 75 percent of 1.5 million homes and businesses served by the island’s power company had electricity restored, and the majority of Puerto Ricans will likely have power by Saturday, Gov. Alejandro García Padilla said.

“We’ve surpassed our expectations,” he said. “We’re working hard to restore power to our other customers … I understand the annoyance of being without electricity.”

The lights went out briefly during Friday’s press conference at the island’s emergency operations center, provoking a laugh from government officials addressing reporters. García Padilla said temporary power outages would still occur in upcoming days given the growing demand for electricity as more and more customers become reconnected following Wednesday’s outage.

Miguel Caraballo, a 30-year-old San Juan bank worker, said his power returned late Thursday.

“As soon as the lights came on, we began to celebrate. We clapped and yelled out in joy,” he said with a smile.

The blackout affected the entire island of 3.5 million people and angered many Puerto Ricans already struggling through a decade-long economic crisis. The outage prompted Garcia to activate the National Guard and declare a state of emergency. Public schools remained closed on Friday, and officials warned that storms could once again knock out power to some areas where electricity had been restored. Meanwhile, some 205,000 people remained without water.

While those with power celebrated a return to normalcy, others were upset about having spent a second night in darkness and possibly a third one with no air conditioning in the tropical heat.

“It’s taking way too long,” said 74-year-old Magdalena Concepción as she waited at a bus stop amid a 100-degree heat index on Friday. “It’s so hard to sleep. I take a cold shower right before going to bed.”

Most Puerto Ricans don’t have generators, and those who could afford it booked hotels offering special rates.

At least one person died the first night from exposure to carbon monoxide after setting up a personal generator. Meanwhile, four police officers were struck by vehicles while directing traffic but were expected to recover.

Localized power outages are common in Puerto Rico given its outdated energy infrastructure, but widespread failures such as this are extremely rare.

The Electric Power Authority said it is investigating what caused the fire at the Aguirre power plant in the southern town of Salinas. The fire knocked out two transmission lines that serve the broader grid, which tripped circuit breakers that automatically shut down the flow of power as a preventive measure, officials said. Executive director Javier Quintana said a preliminary investigation suggests that an apparent failure on one transmission line that might have been caused by lightning caused the switch to explode.

García Padilla denied the blackout was caused by maintenance problems that have plagued the utility for years, largely a result of the island’s economic crisis. He said the switch where the fire happened had been properly maintained.

It was not yet clear how much damage the fire caused. The utility is struggling with a $9 billion debt that it hopes to restructure as it faces numerous corruption allegations. Company officials have said they are seeking revenue to update outdated equipment.

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