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Puerto Rico In The Midst Of An Islandwide Blackout


Puerto Rico is in the midst of a near total blackout. It's the largest power outage since Hurricane Maria destroyed the island's power grid seven months ago, and it's the second major outage in less than a week. NPR's Adrian Florido is in San Juan and joins us now. Hi, Adrian.


SHAPIRO: When did this outage start, and how many people are affected by it?

FLORIDO: So the power went out a little before 11 this morning, and according to officials at the island's power utility PREPA, it left every single one of the island's customers in the dark. It's more than 3 million people. Officials said they scrambled quickly to start restoring power, but full restoration could take up to 36 hours, they said, because they're first going to be prioritizing getting power back to critical facilities like hospitals and water pumping stations and the international airport. And then they will move on to restoring power to businesses and homes.

SHAPIRO: Have they said what caused this massive outage?

FLORIDO: Yeah, so, you know, a lot of the power restoration work now being done is in mountainous areas, and so in one of these areas, crews were using some heavy machinery to remove a collapsed transmission tower when one of their big machines, an excavator, touched one of the main transmission lines connecting two big power plants. And that essentially caused sort of a domino effect, threw the entire grid off balance and shut it down.

Officials said that the contractor responsible for this accident is actually the same contractor that caused a big outage last week which affected more than half of the population. That outage happened when a tree that the contractor was chopping down to access a different worksite fell onto a different transmission line. It was just a single tree. PREPA's operations chief said that it will no longer be working with this company.

SHAPIRO: But explain how a single excavator or a single tree can cut power to the entire island.

FLORIDO: Yeah, so, I mean, it speaks to just how fragile and unstable Puerto Rico's power grid is, right? It's been underfunded and poorly maintained for a really long time. And you know what else, Ari? It also speaks to the fact that even though crews have worked on just about every part of this power grid over the last seven months as they've worked to restore power since the hurricane, they've really only been patching it up, right? They haven't actually been making improvements to it. That is something that is still to come as more federal funding starts to flow into Puerto Rico.

And, I mean, it's really something you can say about the broader recovery sort of at large in Puerto Rico, which is that so much of it now has been kind of halting and patchwork and temporary fixes. And the real improvements that will harden up the grid and improve the housing stock here which is still so heavily damaged - that is yet to come. You know, earlier today, officials were touting the fact that only about 3 percent of the island's customers remain without power after the storm, that they've restored most of the island. And then this happened. So it was kind of like a humbling punch in the gut, you know?

SHAPIRO: I imagine people must just be so exasperated by this seven months after the storm.

FLORIDO: They are. I mean, for some people, it's an inconvenience, right? I mean, people like me - I can handle a cold shower and got a little power block that NPR sent me to plug my computer into. You know, maybe you don't watch Netflix for one night. For other people who actually lived through the hurricane, these outages can be quite traumatic because they take people back to some of the worst days after the storm. And then there are people for whom these outages are actually really dangerous because there are a lot of elderly people who use machinery - medical machinery that requires power.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, is life going on on the island, or has everything come to a halt?

FLORIDO: No. I mean, it has to go on, right? As soon as - you know, there's that moment right after the power goes out where everything goes quiet. And then within a couple of minutes, you start to hear the generators turn on, and they start to hum for the rest of the day and the rest of the evening. There's also a Major League Baseball game that's going to be played here today. The Cleveland Indians are taking on the Minnesota Twins. And...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) All right.

FLORIDO: And officials say that that game will go on as scheduled.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Adrian Florido speaking with us from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thanks.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a reporter for NPR's Code Switch team, where he's covered race, identity and culture since 2015.
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