SAN-JUAN – 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 classes and close government offices.
The blackout also left nearly 170,000 customers without water, forced authorities to close some major roads and stalled traffic elsewhere on the island of 3.2 million people, where the roar of generators and the smell of diesel filled the air.
“We urge you to stay home if possible,” said Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Domingo Emanuelli, who has served as acting governor since Governor Pedro Pierluisi is on an official trip to Spain.
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. Owners of shuttered businesses have also wondered when they might reopen.
Long queues formed at some gas stations as people searched for fuel for generators. Others attempted to charge their cellphones at businesses in scenes reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit as a Category 4 storm in 2017.
Frustration and anger grew throughout the day as officials warned the outage could stretch into Friday.
“No one can say exactly when” power will be fully restored, said Kevin Acevedo, vice president of Luma, the company that took over transmission and distribution from Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority last year. “Let’s be realistic. The system is complex, delicate.
Late Thursday afternoon, the teams had restored power to some 500,000 customers out of nearly 1.5 million.
Authorities in at least one city have distributed food to hundreds of elderly people as well as ice to those whose medications need to be kept cool.
“It’s horrible,” said Luisa Rosado, a mother of two who lives in the San Juan neighborhood of Río Piedras.
She said she and her husband sacrificed their life savings to install a solar electricity system in their home after Hurricane Maria, which left them with at least partial electricity after the blackout.
She said her neighbors had been outraged by recent increases in electricity bills, which were already higher than in most US states.
“Rising bills when you’re not providing perfect service…the level of impunity is absurd,” Rosado said.
Luma said the outage could have been caused by a circuit breaker failure at the Costa Sur generating station, one of the four main power stations on the island. But company officials 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.
Luma CEO Wayne Stensby called it a “highly unusual” outage that “clearly indicates the fragility of the system.”
The outage occurred two months before the start of 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 on 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. .
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said late Thursday that it approved nearly $9.5 billion to the Puerto Rico Electric Company in September 2020 to rebuild the island’s power grid, but that ‘it had not yet received any transmission and distribution projects for evaluation and approval of construction funds.
A series of strong earthquakes that hit 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.
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