The lights are still out for nearly half a million Puerto Ricans.
After Hurricane Maria struck the US territory on September 20, a crippling blackout descended over its 3.4 million residents, cutting communication between loved ones, spoiling food and life-saving medications, and nixing access to banks and clean water.
The death toll, initially estimated at 64, is now thought to be at least 1,000, according to a recent New York Times analysis. Earlier this week, FEMA told NPR is was “officially shutting off” aid to the US territory on January 31, but on Wednesday the agency reversed course and said an end date for support was not yet set.
Nearly four months after the storm, more than 450,000 Puerto Ricans remain without power, and thousands have no clean water.
It’s the result of an abused electric grid left to rot – and what’s happening in Puerto Rico could happen in many other parts of America. Here’s what it looks like on the ground.
Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. Nearly four months later, more than 450,000 Puerto Ricans are still living in a blackout.
The storm didn’t just damage the island’s already-fragile power supply. It also shredded flattened buildings, and leveled cars. Ernestina Lebron, a resident of Maunabo, still has no roof.
Life has not gotten back to normal. Hurricane Maria’s death toll on the island is now thought to be closer to 1,052, according to a recent New York Times analysis.
Source: The New York Times
Puerto Rico’s power grid is more of a patchwork than a unified network. The majority of its large power plants lie on its southern coast, but most of its people live in the north, beyond mountainous terrain that makes distributing power difficult.
Power plants owned by the US territory’s bankrupt government-owned power authority, Prepa, are an average of 40 years old. In some areas, the only houses that are lit are being run by generators.
FEMA said it administered 30 million gallons of potable water, almost 60 million meals, $US500 million of public assistance, and $US3.2 million in unemployment to those affected in Puerto Rico.
One of the most challenging aspects of the storm was what residents described to Business Insider as a complete communication breakdown. Maritza Stanchich, a professor of Caribbean studies at the University of Puerto Rico, said she and her neighbours went almost a week with no news after the storm.
“There’s an information shortage and a telecommunications collapse,” Stanchich told Business Insider shortly after Maria struck in September. “That part is worse than not having water and electricity.”
There was also sizable damage to medical facilities. Many hospitals were without power for days and hundreds of medications that required refrigeration spoiled.
Today, all of Puerto Rico’s hospitals have power, but several hundred Puerto Ricans may have died after Maria cut off emergency services and aid to the elderly and other at-risk populations.
In Humacao, a blacked-out province where people were using bacteria-infested streams for washing and laundry after Maria hit, the damage remains visible.
Across the island, utility poles are still down.
Thousands of homes have yet to be restored. Some still lack walls.
Many homes are still windowless; others have no power or water.
Nevertheless, people are making repairs where they can. Here, Lourdes Rodriguez cleans while her husband repairs the roof.
In a house nearby, Angel Morales and his wife Carmen Martinez board a window.
Still, some see a potential for hope in the destruction of an already-ailing grid.
The week after Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico, Blake Richetta, the senior vice president of a renewable-energy company called Sonnen, boarded a plane bound for the island.
Sonnen makes solar batteries designed to supply homes with an independent source of energy, similar to the Powerwall systems built by Tesla.
Sonnen, Tesla, and a handful of other renewable energy companies are experimenting with providing power to the island using solar grids that do not rely on larger grid infrastructure.
“This is a time where we could help Puerto Rico take a major level jump,” Richetta told Business Insider. “It’s a humanitarian crisis, but it’s also a huge opportunity for growth.”
As FEMA explores ending official aid, much of the island is still reeling.
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