Puerto Rico is 100% without power after Hurricane Maria — here’s why that’s a huge problem

Hurricane Maria puerto rico

The lights are out in Puerto Rico.

The island is 100% without electricity in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which has wreaked devastation on much of the region. The Category 4 storm touched down on Puerto Rico around 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning after slamming the Virgin Islands on Tuesday evening.

Within hours, the island was completely powerless, ABC News reported. Thousands of people are currently seeking refuge in shelters, and all electricity and phone lines are dead as of 3 p.m. ET.

Power is a key component of any area’s infrastructure. It supplies cool air during a heat wave, keeps life-preserving hospital equipment running, and allows people to charge phones that they need to communicate. A region’s power infrastructure can tell you a lot about its capacity to withstand a devastating event like a hurricane, according to Vivek Shandas, an urban planning professor at Portland State University.

After Hurricane Irma lashed Florida and caused power outages throughout the state, eight people trapped in a nursing home died after the facility’s faulty backup generator failed to come online. That was a clear failure on the part of the nursing home and larger region to plan for a natural disaster, Shandas said. Still, it wasn’t shocking, since most parts of the US badly needs to update levees, buildings, transit hubs, and power lines, he said.

“Generally speaking the US gets about a D+ for things like this. Much of our infrastructure was built in the late 1900s and it’s beginning to fall apart,” Shandas said.

In Puerto Rico, an unincorporated US territory, widespread power outages are creating problems across the island for the second time in two weeks. The island largely avoided the wrath of Hurricane Irma earlier this month, but the storm’s powerful winds still managed to leave more than 1 million people without electricity, according to the Associated Press. More than 70,000 people were still without power as Maria closed in.

The electricity problems stem from larger economic issues — public infrastructure on the island has long been deteriorating. Puerto Rico effectively sought bankruptcy protection in May, according to the New York Times, and is currently $US123 billion in debt.

“It’s a terrible downward spiral,” Miguel Soto-Class, president of the Center for a New Economy, a research group on the island, told the Times. “When the power goes out, the water goes out, because the water authority is the number one client of the power authority. They have a few of their own generators, but eventually you’ll have a second utility that will go down.”