More than a million customers in Puerto Rico were without power Thursday after a fire at a major power plant caused the largest blackout so far this year in the entire United States, forcing classes to be canceled and government offices to close. .
The blackout also left some 160,000 customers without water and clogged traffic on the island of 3.2 million people, where the roar of generators and the smell of diesel filled the air. Those who couldn’t afford generators and had medical conditions like diabetes, which depend on refrigerated insulin, worried about how long they’d be without power.
Long lines formed at some gas stations as people searched for fuel for generators. Others tried to charge their mobile phones at businesses in scenes reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit as a Category 4 storm in 2017.
Officials in at least one city distributed food to hundreds of elderly people, as well as ice to those whose medications must be kept cool.
“This is horrible,” said Luisa Rosado, a mother of two who lives in the San Juan de Río Piedras neighborhood.
She said that she and her husband had sacrificed their savings to install a solar electricity system on their home after Hurricane Maria, which left them with at least some power after the blackout.
She said her neighbors were outraged by recent increases in energy bills, which were already higher than most US states.
“To increase bills when perfect service is not provided… the level of impunity is absurd,” Rosado said.
Luma, the company that took over transmission and distribution from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority last year, said the blackout could have been caused by an automatic switch failure at the Costa Sur generation plant, one of the four main plants on the island.
“The system is being restored little by little,” said Kevin Acevedo, vice president of Luma, adding that the company is trying to complete the work in 24 hours. “The people of Puerto Rico have to understand that it is a system of many years. Recovering Puerto Rico’s system is a delicate and complicated process.”
Luma said the exact cause of the outage is unknown.
“It’s going to require a thorough investigation,” Acevedo said, adding that the equipment whose failure caused the fire had been properly maintained.
Officials said at least three generating units were back online Thursday, with crews working to bring more back online.
The PowerOutage.us website showed some power restoration and recorded 402,551 outages, but said the true numbers could be higher.
Luma CEO Wayne Stensby called it a “highly unusual” outage that “clearly indicates the fragility of the system.”
The blackout occurred two months before the Atlantic hurricane season begins, causing many to worry about the condition of Puerto Rico’s power grid.
“Yes, the system is fragile, no one denies it, but we are prepared,” Acevedo said.
Police officers were stationed at major intersections to help direct traffic Thursday, while health officials checked in with hospitals to make sure generators were still running.
The blackout further infuriated Puerto Ricans who were already frustrated with an electrical system devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Emergency repairs were made at the time, but rebuilding efforts have yet to begin, and power company officials blame aging and poorly maintained infrastructure for the continued outages.
Puerto Rico has suffered from major infrastructure problems for years. Its electrical network was privatized in June 2021 in an effort to solve the problem of persistent blackouts.
But that same month a fire in a transformer triggered another blackout that left hundreds of thousands without power. Another fire at a power plant in September 2016 caused an island-wide blackout.
Thousands of fed up neighbors they marched in protest in October.
The former Spanish colony became a US territory in the late 19th century before gaining Commonwealth status in 1950.
After years of financial problems and recession, in 2017, the island declared the largest bankruptcy in the history of a US local administration.
The Electric Power Authority is also trying to restructure $9 billion of public debt to get out of bankruptcy. The company has struggled for decades against corruption, mismanagement and lack of maintenance.