Almost one year after Puerto Rico experienced a total blackout, the island’s electrical utility company has reportedly restored power for all of its customers. But, the electrical grid—while working—remains fragile and vulnerable to failing should another storm make landlfall.
On September 20, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, knocking out the electrical grid, leaving all homes and businesses in darkness. The government-run Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has been working—at times alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and government contractors—to restore it. Per The New York Times:
After spending $3.2 billion, erecting some 52,000 new electrical poles and stringing 6,000 miles of wire from the federal government alone, the Puerto Rico electricity system is not in much better condition now than it was before Maria cut power to every home and business on the island.
Even as some of the last customers are reconnected, many billions of dollars more must still be spent to reconstruct the system and fortify the transmission lines that have been so tattered and poorly maintained that when a mishap occurs, the lights can go out on the entire island.
Since the blackout, PREPA has been in a state of internal disarray. The current chief executive, José Ortiz, is the third in one year. He has held the position for three weeks and one of his predecessors held the job for only 24 hours. Five of seven members of the board, displeased with the salaries provided for new executives, quit last month. There have also been disruptions in the work crews. According to The Times:
The long haul of repairs involved thousands of electrical workers from around the country, including crews from three companies that were sent home early. One was dismissed in a scandal over inflated prices; another amid accusations that it had accomplished too little for the $1 billion it was paid. The third had accidentally caused a major power outage.
In February, Puerto Rico was allocated $16 billion in the budget deal passed by Congress, with $2 billion earmarked to restore and strengthen the electrical grid. But that same month, nearly 1,000 people contracted under the federal government to work with PREPA left the island, in what The United States Army Corps of Engineers called a “responsible drawdown” of the workforce under its supervision. They left while 14 percent of residents—hundreds of thousands of people—were still without electricity.
Months later, in June, Governor Ricardo Rosselló signed legislation that allowed for the partial privatization of PREPA, meaing it can be sold to private entities. The move has drawn criticism from some union leaders and environmental activists who say it will increase energy prices, making electricity cost prohibitive for many.
With more than three months left in this year’s hurricane season, FEMA generators still power the islands of Vieques and Culebra. Additionally, PREPA must finish repairs to five transmission lines, 12 damaged substations and three transmission centers that are needed for grid stability.
On the current state of the efforts to restore—and maintain—full power, Ortiz told The Times, “This looks like a mess, really, from the outside. Once you are inside, you see it is even worse.”