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Hurricane Fiona exposes Puerto Rico's failure to fix frail power grid

Jim Wyss and Michelle Kaske, Bloomberg News on

Published in Weather News

When Hurricane Fiona lashed Puerto Rico Sunday, it left at least one dead, washed out bridges and roads, ripped off roofs and sent more than 2,100 people scrambling to emergency shelters. It also laid bare, once again, just how sickly the island’s power infrastructure is.

Even before the storm touched land on the southwestern tip of the island, it had provoked a general blackout that affected the entire U.S. territory of 3.1 million people. Luma Energy said that it restored power to more than 100,000 of its 1.5 million clients.

The power outages hit as Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, known as Prepa, is dealing with a bankruptcy with no clear end in sight. Court ordered mediation to reduce the $9 billion debt the company owes broke down on Friday — just hours before Fiona hit — opening the door to prolonged and costly litigation with bondholders.

For many, the outage is a reminder of the dark days after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm in 2017. Maria claimed almost 3,000 lives, destroyed the electrical grid and left vast swathes of the island in the dark. It took almost a year to completely restore power.

Problems persist

Yajaira Vargas, 56, was selling tripe and chicken soup out of the back of her car in the Barrio Obrero neighborhood of San Juan on Monday morning, as Fiona was still dumping rain on the capital. After Hurricane Maria, she was left without power for more than a month. While Fiona was mild by comparison, Vargas has little faith her electricity will be restored quickly.

 

“I’m not going home until I sell all of this, because it has to be refrigerated and I’m not going to let it go bad,” she said, as she ladled soup from a cooler. “You never know when the lights are going to come on.”

Since Maria hit, the federal government directed $9.5 billion to repair the system, and the island put the management of electricity transmission and distribution into private hands.

And yet problems persist. The island still has some of the most expensive and least reliable energy of any U.S. jurisdiction. And blackouts are common, even without storms. On a clear, windless day in April, a fire at an aging substation sparked an island-wide outage that took days to recover from.

And federally funded projects, while vital and massive, are moving at a glacial pace. Of the billions allocated for the electrical grid, only about $40 million has been disbursed, according to FEMA Associate Administrator Anne Bink.

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