Five years ago, Puerto Rico was in the dark. Hurricane Maria had passed through the island and destroyed the power grid, causing a massive blackout. Today, the nightmare repeats itself. More than a million people remain without electricity and more than 800,000 without drinking water after the passage of Hurricane Fiona, which made landfall on the southwest coast of the country on Sunday afternoon. Two hours before the eye of the hurricane reached the island, the electrical service was not able to hold and collapsed. The island, which is still recovering from the ravages caused by the cyclone in 2017, was left completely without electricity in the midst of a new emergency.
It is not known how long Puerto Rico will be without electricity, but the governor, Pedro Pierluisi, has said that he hopes that the service will be restored in a matter of “days”. However, the collapse of the electricity grid reopens one of the deepest wounds left by Hurricane Maria five years ago. On September 20, 2017, Maria crossed Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane. It knocked out the island’s power grid and caused, among other things, the longest blackout in Puerto Rico’s history. Some communities, especially in the mountainous area of the interior of the country, went for more than a year without electricity or drinking water.
When it was possible to restore the electrical service, it was done as it could. There was no planning or design. “The network was completely weak because it was built with what was there,” explains Fabio Andrade, an electrical engineer and associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. “Amendments were made thinking that they would be temporary and that they would be improved later,” adds Andrade, “but the arrangements that should have been made were never made. So, now another hurricane comes and it falls again.” The engineer predicts that the restoration of electricity after the passage of Fiona will be “a slow process.” “By letting the entire island go into a total blackout, the boot process is going to take time. It is going to have to be reviewed line by line to gradually begin to build the network,” warns Andrade.
Andrade hopes that Fiona will serve as a warning to the government, which has not been able to rebuild the network since María passed through in 2017. “This will make them aware that this has to be fixed now. We had five years after Maria to recover the island and rebuild the network before another hurricane hit. It was not done and now we have seen that with any storm we are going to collapse because the island is not prepared”, says the engineer.
The blackout caused by Fiona is not the first that has occurred in Puerto Rico since 2017. In the last year, there have been two other occasions where the entire country has lost power due to failures in the electrical network. All these interruptions in the electricity supply have occurred under the management of Luma Energy, the private consortium to which the Government awarded a 15-year contract in 2021 to be in charge of the transmission and distribution of energy on the island. Privatization of the electrical system is supposed to be the solution to all the ills caused by Maria. But the reality is that since Luma took office, service interruptions have been constant, while the company has been increasing the price of electricity. In just one year, customers have seen their bills skyrocket by 58%. Now, the island relies on a company it doesn’t trust to restore power and prevent a blackout from lasting months, as happened to Maria.
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Puerto Ricans know that only the people save the people. They know that when the roads are cut off by fallen trees, you grab a machete and cut the branches to make way. Or that when a river overflows its banks and traps a family, you have to find a boat that can cross the river current to rescue them. They learned it from Maria five years ago and have lived it again with Fiona, who left up to 30 inches of water accumulated in different parts of the island after more than 24 hours of torrential rain. The storm’s winds uprooted power poles, trees, and roofs from homes and businesses. There were landslides, landslides and floods, which caused thousands of citizens to be rescued and evicted from their residences. At least four people have died as a result of the emergency.
The island government is still in the process of assessing all the damage caused, but it is estimated that it is “catastrophic” and worth millions. The president of the United States, Joe Biden, approved an emergency declaration for the island on Sunday, which allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist the local government in protective measures. immediate. A disaster declaration can also be approved later, as was done with Hurricane Maria, so that FEMA can assist in long-term recovery as well. Puerto Rico is a US territory, so it depends on the federal government to mitigate the effects of an emergency like this.
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