Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rico's longest power outages since 2000

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Hurricane Maria (2017)

Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in the early hours of Sept. 20, bringing 155 mph winds that knocked the majority of the 3,500-square-mile island into one of its longest widespread power outages since Hurricane Jeanne made landfall in 2004.

As of Tuesday, Oct. 24, more than 50 people have died in the wake of the storm, with the latest deaths linked to bacterial infections.

Officials warned that the storm’s destructive blow to Puerto Rico’s aging electrical infrastructure could take months to repair.

Two months after Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, the majority of the island’s 3.4 million people were still without power. On Nov. 28, the Department of Energy reported for the first time that more than half of normal peak load electricity was restored. Residents have relied on portable generators as workers across the island try to repair the damaged electrical grid.

In the days after Maria, many residents have struggled to access gasoline, food, water, money and a cellphone signal to contact family members.

Others, especially those without electricity, have been cut off from the outside world.

In the island’s mountainous regions, massive landslides prevented local and federal assistance from reaching residents for more than a week.

Energy output restored
Active cell service sites
Note: Electricity data is since Sept. 7, when Hurricane Irma grazed the island. Data is from Department of Energy situation reports, which are not released daily. Percentages are shares of peak load restored. Cellphone service data is since Sept. 21, when the Federal Communications Commission started releasing service information daily.

In the town of Dorado, residents are lining up at a hazardous-waste site to get water for bathing and, in some cases, drinking. The EPA-designated Superfund site has groundwater contamination levels below legal thresholds but is still prompting concerns of disease and infection.

The number of people regaining power has steadily increased since Maria made landfall, though incidents of tripped lines have caused fluctuations.

[Related: Trapped in the mountains, Puerto Ricans don’t see help, or a way out]

Outside the island, the outage also could have consequences on the mainland United States.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned that the outage could cause drug shortages. Puerto Rico manufactures nearly 10 percent of medicine used by Americans, including numerous medical devices.

Vehicles travel along a dark street in an area without electricity after Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 27. (Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg News)

A family fills up water bottles at a cistern truck in La Perla, Puerto Rico. (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post)

When a blackout occurs in the United States, workers from across the country often can converge, usually by road, to the site.

In Puerto Rico, the situation is different.

[Related: Trump’s Puerto Rico video tells positive story but leaves a lot on cutting-room floor]

Workers and tools must be flown to the island. Any heavy equipment, such as bucket trucks, transformers and wires, must be transported on ships.

When the workers and equipment arrive, the next challenge is repairing downed lines among the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA)’s 2,478 miles of transmission lines, clearing debris from roads, and providing food and water to residents.

Several U.S. utility companies have sent workers to help PREPA with restoring power.

On Oct. 19, Whitefish Energy announced it signed a $300 million contract with PREPA to repair and reconstruct large portions of the electrical infrastructure. The company, which employed only two people when Maria hit Puerto Rico, is based in Whitefish, Mont., the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

The contract, however, drew scrutiny and criticism from Democrats and Republicans in Congress. On Oct. 27, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which controls government reimbursements, said it had "significant concerns" about how Whitefish secured the contract.

Two days later, the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, asked PREPA to cancel the contract.

Workers fix a light fixture at the San Jorge Children's Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 28. (John Taggart /Bloomberg News)

Those downed lines are connected to PREPA-owned power plants that are decades old.

The island’s electrical grid, which President Trump described as being “in terrible shape,” was deteriorating from a lack of maintenance even before the one-two punch of Irma and Maria.

PREPA, one of the largest public utilities in the United States and its territories, has been historically underfunded. The company’s finances have been in decline since 2013.

PREPA’s financial downturn

Bond price

$104.70 (April 30, 2007)

$100

75

50

$36.55

(Oct. 10)

25

0

2007

09

’11

’13

’15

’17

Profits

In millions

$400

300

200

100

0

−100

−200

−300

−400

2008

’10

’12

’14

’16

PREPA’s financial downturn

PREPA’s financial downturn

Profits

Bond price

In millions

$104.70 (April 30, 2007)

$400

$100

300

200

75

100

0

50

−100

$36.55

(Oct. 10)

−200

25

−300

0

−400

2007

09

’11

’13

’15

’17

2008

’10

’12

’14

’16

According to a November report published by Synapse Energy, a Massachusetts-based energy consulting firm, a combination of inadequate infrastructure investments, staff departures and a leadership team that made “bad bets” have left PREPA’s system “in a state of crisis.”

“PREPA’s system today appears to be running on fumes,” the authors wrote, adding that the company required “an infusion of capital — monetary, human, and intellectual — to restore a functional utility.”

[Related: Hurricane Maria has dealt a heavy blow to Puerto Rico’s bankrupt utility and fragile electric grid]

Before the hurricanes, PREPA said it needed more than $4 billion to overhaul its outdated power plants and reduce its years-long reliance on imported oil.

This has caused Puerto Rico to have one of the most expensive electricity rates in the United States and its territories.

Monthly electrical price per state since 2014

Per kilowatt

$0.30

$0.25

Hawaii

Puerto Rico

$0.20

0.20

0.10

June 2014

June 2017

Note: 2017 prices are preliminary. Data for Puerto Rico only available since June 2014.

Monthly electrical price per state since 2014

Per kilowatt

$0.30

$0.25

Hawaii

Puerto Rico

$0.20

0.20

0.10

June 2014

2015

2016

2017

June 2017

Note: 2017 prices are preliminary. Data for Puerto Rico only available since June 2014.

In July, PREPA filed for bankruptcy with $9 billion in debt, according to the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority.

The millions of dollars in repairs from Maria will add an additional burden to the already struggling company, which could delay power restoration to the rest of Puerto Rico.

PREPA’s debt is only a small chunk of Puerto Rico’s overall public debt, which climbed to more than $72 billion in 2015.

Puerto Rico’s public debt has been a

burden for several years

$72.2

$24.2B

2015

2000

Puerto Rico

Debt is 92.5% of GDP

U.S. total

73.8%

Note: 2016 estimate

Puerto Rico’s public debt has been a burden for several years

$72.2

$24.2

2015

2000

Puerto Rico

Public debt is 92.5% of GDP

U.S. total

73.8%

Note: 2016 estimate

Puerto Rico's unemployment rate is twice the U.S. average, 10.1 percent in August compared with 4.4 percent on average in the United States.

High poverty rates exacerbated by the recession and mass emigration from the island to the mainland, especially among the educated class, have contributed to Puerto Rico’s economic turmoil.

Puerto Rico’s labor force

In millions

Peak

Recession

1.1

January

2000

2006

2008-09

August

2017

year-to-year percent change in labor force

Puerto Rico

2001

2009

2016

U.S. average

2001

2009

2016

Note: Numbers are seasonally adjusted

Puerto Rico’s labor force

In millions

1.4

1.3

1.2

Recession

Peak

1.1

1

January 2000

2006

2008-09

Augst 2017

year-to-year percent change in labor force

Puerto Rico

U.S. average

2001

2009

2016

2001

2009

2016

Note: Numbers are seasonally adjusted

As of Oct. 23, more than 20,000 federal workers are on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in response to hurricanes Maria and Irma, according to FEMA.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said the island needs about 2,700 megawatts of electricity.

In an Oct. 20 news briefing, Semonite said more than 570 megawatts have been restored.

[Related: FEMA removes statistics about drinking water access and electricity in Puerto Rico from website]

Laris Karklis and Samuel Granados contributed to this report.

About this story

The timer in the headline begins at 6:15 a.m. Sept. 20, when Hurricane Maria made landfall. While power outages likely occurred before the storm, The Post used Maria's landfall as a benchmark. Prior to Maria, Irma also caused widespread outages in Puerto Rico, but power was mostly restored at a much faster pace. The timer will continue until the U.S. government reports the island has more than 90 percent – pre-Maria estimates – of power restored.

Nighttime light data from NASA Suomi NPP VIIRS. Puerto Rico debt data from “Origins of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Crisis” by Marc D. Joffe and Jesse Martinez and the CIA World Factbook. PREPA profits and bond prices from Bloomberg. Electricity and disturbance data from the Energy Department. Cellphone service data from the Federal Communications Commission.

Originally published Oct. 11, 2017.

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