If you ever wondered what it would look like if the grid collapsed here on the mainland, the island of Puerto Rico is a tragic, real-life case study.
These stories show us what life is like for more than a million people who STILL don’t have power and running water nearly 3 months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated their communities.
According to a website showing the status of utilities on the island, four months after two hurricanes wrought havoc, 32% of Puerto Ricans are still without power and nearly 10% are still without running water. However, even those who have running water must boil it.
But statistics don’t tell the real story.
At first, it was a war zone.
In the first days after the grid went down, chaos ruled. I vetted as many of the stories as I could and concluded:
…there is very little food, no fresh water, 97% are still without power, limited cell signals have stymied communications, and hospitals are struggling to keep people alive. There is no 911. Help is not on the way. If you have no cash, you can’t buy anything. As people get more desperate, violence increases. (source)
A friend wrote this post about her family on Puerto Rico:
“My family has lost everything. My uncle with stage 4 cancer is in so much pain and stuck in the hospital. However, conditions in the island are far worse than we imagined and my greatest fear has been made reality. The chaos has begun. The mosquitos have multiplied like the plague. Dead livestock are all over the island including in whatever fresh water supplies they have.
My family has been robbed and have lost whatever little they had left. The gang members are robbing people at gunpoint and the island is in desperation. People are shooting each other at gas stations to get fuel.
They’re telling us to rescue them and get them out of the island because they are scared for their lives. We’re talking about 3.5 million people on an island, with no food, no drinking water, no electricity, homes are gone. Family if you have the means to get your people out, do it. This is just the first week. Imagine the days and weeks to come. These are bad people doing bad things to our most vulnerable.
Imagine a few weeks with no resources and the most vulnerable become desperate. What are you capable of doing if your children are sick and hungry? We have to help.” (source)
Other outlets told the same stories. Jeffrey Holsman wrote a guest post for USA Today, sharing what he was witnessing.
The sounds of automatic weapons firing were audible Tuesday evening in San Juan. We were told the National Guard had arrived, but I hadn’t personally seen a Jeep or uniform in the streets yet.
Total darkness has swallowed Puerto Rico, as it has every night since the 12-hour monster Hurricane Maria roared across the island with more than 20 inches of rain and 155 mph winds. I’ve never experienced anything like it: wind and rain from every direction, pounding continuously.
Now, a war zone best describes what’s left of what was once an emerald green gem in the Caribbean…
…after Maria, we face hours upon hours of waiting in lines for gas that might not be there; hours waiting in bank and ATM lines for money that might not be there; hours waiting in grocery store lines for food that might not be there. (source)
It only took a few days before people began to become ill from the tainted water. There were many injuries related to the storm, as well as the aftermath, and these crises were compounded by the lack of medical assistance.
Only 11 of 69 hospitals on Puerto Rico have power or are running on generators, FEMA reports. That means there’s limited access to X-ray machines and other diagnostic and life-saving equipment. Few operating rooms are open, which is scary, considering an influx of patients with storm-related injuries. (source)
People were unable to acquire essential medications and treatments like dialysis.
And this was only the beginning.
One month after the disaster…
A month after Hurricane Maria, the situation was still very grim. Three million residents were still without electricity and one million were without running water. (source) Officials reported 54 deaths attributed to the hurricane but many said that the number was far higher. The mayor of San Juan said that the number of cremations had doubled and put the actual casualties at closer to 500 people.
She said: “It appears, for whatever reason, that the death toll is much higher than what has been reported. What we do know for sure is that people are being catalogued as dying…natural deaths”.
She explained that some of the deaths relating to the hurricane were being reported as “natural causes” because the storm was the secondary factor in their death.
For example, some people reportedly suffocated after their respirators stopped due to the power cut…
…The bodies were cremated before the medical examiner could determine whether they should have been included in the official death toll.
Accurate information about the figure is particularly important in the US because if a person dies in a natural disaster, their family has the right to claim federal aid. (source)
Evelyn Milagros Rodriguez, a librarian at the University of Puerto Rico wrote a first-person account of the aftermath during the first month post-Maria. She reported that the books, computers, and furniture at the library were mostly ruined and that mold had invaded the building. Here’s an excerpt from her story:
What outsiders are unable to see, perhaps, is that an entire culture has arisen around the catastrophe caused by Hurricane Maria – one with typically catastrophic traits: material scarcity, emotional trauma, economic catastrophe, environmental devastation.
Puerto Ricans are now facing a dramatically different way of life, which means our relatives and friends in the diaspora are, too.
Nothing about life resembles anything close to normal. An estimated 100,000 homes and buildings were demolished in the storm, and 90 percent of the island’s infrastructure is damaged or destroyed. Not only are there shortages of water and electricity but also of food, highways, bridges, security forces and medical facilities.
It’s dangerous to venture outside at night. An island-wide curfew was lifted last week, but without streetlights, stoplights or police, driving and walking are dangerous after dark.
The official tally of missing people varies, with police tallies ranging from 60 to 80 right now. Considering Puerto Rico’s hazardous conditions and limited health care services, that number is sure to rise. We are well aware that epidemic diseases, including leptospirosis and cholera, could come next. Health concerns are further stoked by the delays and disarray of the various federal agencies tasked with handling this emergency. (source)
Leyla Santiago, a CNN journalist who had been born in Puerto Rico and still has family there, echoed the librarian’s story in her own report.
Puerto Rico has also changed forever.
The struggles are everywhere. And where there is help or supplies, there are lines, always lines.
Some days, it would be people lining up for gas. And then for food at the supermarket. The longest lines were now to use the ATM.
I became numb to the lines quickly.
When we passed another long one at the port, I didn’t think anything of it. Until it hit me.
Thousands were lining up to leave Puerto Rico. I watched as an old man dragged an oxygen tank, while pleading with organizers to let him on that massive cruise ship now acting as a refugee transport. Another man lifted his shirt to show the scars from an operation, hoping it would convince the right people that he needed to get off the island. (source)
Although unthinkable, it’s even worse in more remote areas of Puerto Rico. Despite their preparations, Rosana Aviles Marin’s elderly parents’ lives were devastated in their central mountain village.
The winds of up to 155 miles per hour that roared across the island buckled the house’s walls and tore holes in the ceiling, letting in water that destroyed furniture, framed photos of Marin and her siblings, and brightly colored ceramic statues of Jesus.
That wasn’t all it destroyed. The storm also downed power lines throughout the area, and Marin and her parents have been entirely without electricity for weeks. Much of their food went bad, they have no cellphone service, and local markets and restaurants remain closed. Her parents use a small diesel generator to power lights and, for a few hours per day, a small refrigerator. The rest of the time, she tells me during a recent trip to the area, “my parents live in darkness.” (source)
The island’s major source of revenue has been tourism, and that has all but stopped since the hurricane. Considering how badly they were struggling economically before, that is just another blow to a place driven to its knees.
The narrow blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan are deserted. Cigar shops are boarded up. Boutiques in bright colonial buildings are closed…
…About a third of the hotels in Puerto Rico remain shuttered. Restaurants and shops are still without power. Beaches are closed for swimming because of possible water contamination.
The high season begins in December, and tourism officials are hoping to lure some visitors, but that depends on when power is fully restored and how quickly hotels and attractions can repair the catastrophic damage. (source)
It’s a Catch-22. Until the tourists return, many won’t be able to afford to restore their businesses. But until they restore their businesses, the tourists won’t return.
Two months after…
Two months to the date after Maria struck with a vengeance, only half of the residents of the island had power. The return of infrastructure began in the cities and wealthier areas. Those in poor or remote areas are still waiting.
Here’s a video of what it looks like in Puerto Rico right now as people struggle to restore electricity.
Billions of dollars were allocated by the government and millions has come in from private donors.
Politicians have been in and out of the island and that has led to a spending law that provides $5 billion for Puerto Rico’s recovery and billions for government agencies providing disaster assistance. Projections are that a lot more will be needed.
On top of that, millions has been raised and contributed by private groups and foundations and individuals.
Cruz (the mayor of San Juan) said people from around the United States have been sending small donations, money orders, $50 or $10 attached to cards or pieces of paper. Some gave as much as $300 to $500.
“We’re going to use it to rebuild homes, to make sure people have good drinking water, because even if it comes out of a faucet it has to be drinkable, to schools for children. Some of the schools have been in really bad shape. Twenty-five percent of what comes into the foundation goes to other towns outside of San Juan,” she said. (source)
At two and a half months post-hurricane, PBS reported the following statistics:
- 66 percent of power on the island has been restored
- 93 percent of the island has access to water, but it remains on a boil advisory
- 73 percent of cell sites are up and running
- 982 survivors remain in 41 shelters across the island
The island still looks like a war zone.
Trash and debris from the storm remain a rampant problem. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported it has removed more than 639,000 cubic yards of debris. But it is still tasked with removing at least 2.7 million remaining cubic yards. (source)
Residents of the island are without resources and are at the mercy of FEMA…and government funding.
Democratic Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren unveiled a bill that would provide $114 billion in aid to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands…
[But] the package is unlikely to get a vote, analysts say
Meanwhile, more than 200,000 people from Puerto Rico have arrived in Florida since Maria hit, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
FEMA is now moving from response to recovery mode. FEMA is still providing daily food, fuel, and water to survivors of Maria, the longest such sustained distribution after a disaster in FEMA history. (source)
You can get more details about the proposal here.
And now, the return of electricity has been further delayed.
Previously, Puerto Rican officials estimated that the island would have electricity again by December? It turns out they were wrong. Now it looks like everyone in Puerto Rico won’t have power until February… at the earliest.
PREPA acting Director Justo Gonzalez cited “natural” and hurricane damage to the power grid that was initially unidentified as the reason for the delay of power generation.
Between Puerto Rico’s economic problems and an aging grid, this isn’t a speedy process.
Before the storm hit, I wrote an article predicting at least a 6-month wait before power was restored, and this was for a variety of reasons. I cited Philipe Schoene Roura, the editor of a San Juan, Puerto Rico-based newspaper, Caribbean Business, who wrote of the many reasons that it would take so long:
“The lifespan of most of Prepa’s equipment has expired. There is a risk that in light of this dismal infrastructure situation, a large atmospheric event hitting Puerto Rico could wreak havoc because we are talking about a very vulnerable and fragile system at the moment,” Ramos added…
…Francisco Guerrero (a fictitious name to protect his identity), a Prepa field worker for 23 years, said it would take months for Prepa to bring up Puerto Rico’s power system should a hurricane like Harvey strike the island.
The lack of linemen and other technical personnel, as well as a lack of equipment—including replacement utility poles for powerlines and replacement parts—are the issues of greatest concern among public corporation employees, who say they risk their lives working with equipment in poor condition that provides them with little safety.
Guerrero said that today only 580 linemen remain out of the 1,300 who were part of the workforce in previous years—and that’s not counting the upcoming retirement of another 90 linemen. Likewise, he said there are only 300 electrical line testers to serve the entire island.
The source also said that much of Prepa’s equipment dates back to the 1950s—and the more “modern” equipment that is still functional dates from the 1990s; in other words, it’s from the past century.
“If a hurricane like this one [Harvey] hits us, the system is not going to come online, I’d say, in over six months. Right now, the warehouses don’t even have materials. I’m talking about utility poles and other stuff,” Guerrero explained. (source)
It turns out that Rora was not exaggerating. But money and a dilapidated system aren’t the only problems. There is an issue of geography as well.
Puerto Rico’s biggest power generators are on the south of the island, but most of its inhabitants live on the north side, primarily in San Juan. There are four high-capacity transmission lines that carry power from the south to the north, and they pass through the center part of the island, the region Marin calls home. The problem is that central Puerto Rico is mountainous, full of huge swaths of thick forest, and mainly reachable only by driving on terrifyingly narrow dirt roads.
That makes it hard to reach those four vital lines even in the best of circumstances. In post-Maria Puerto Rico it’s even harder, because the center of the island was the region hardest hit by the hurricane. Since the government is trying to get power to San Juan first, that means those in the regions devastated most by the hurricane will be waiting the longest for power to be restored. Sánchez, the engineer, says workers would need to be flown in by helicopter to clear debris before repairs could even begin. (source)
Would you be prepared for something like this?
If you think something like this couldn’t happen to us on the mainland, you’re deluding yourself.
Our grid isn’t in fantastic shape either. For years, people in the know have been warning that our electrical infrastructure is aging and unstable. It would cost us a mindboggling 5 trillion dollars to replace the decrepit system, and age isn’t the only threat. The possibility of an EMP strike could take it down permanently (and that threat seems more real every day as tensions with North Korea rise.) If our grid was taken down by such an attack, it could kill 90% of Americans within the first year.
We would lose
- Heating and cooling.
- Our economy.
- Fresh, running water.
- Medical care.
The list could go on and on.
Few people would be ready for an event that took out the entire infrastructure for an extended period of time. I personally lean toward a more low-tech plan for long-term scenarios like this. (For one reason, look how difficult fuel is to come by in Puerto Rico right now.)
Learning from the real-life experience of others give us just a glimpse of what we could expect.