World

Puerto Rico could be without power for more than a day in new blackout

An island-wide blackout has hit Puerto Rico, which is struggling with an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory.

Even before Wednesday's outage, 40,000 people were still without electricity from September 2017 hurricane

A house is lit with the help of a generator, on a street in the dark in Naguabo, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 25. The power grid has yet to be restored to full capacity, seven months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. (Alvin Baez/Reuters)

An island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the U.S. territory struggles with an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria.

Officials said it could take 24 to 36 hours to fully restore power to more than 1.4 million customers as outrage grew across the island about the state of Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority.

"This is too much," said Luis Oscar Rivera, a 42-year-old computer technician who just got normal power back at his house less than two months ago. "It's like the first day of Maria all over again."

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since the Category 4 storm struck on Sept. 20 that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. It snarled traffic across the island, interrupted classes and work and forced dozens of businesses to temporarily close, including the island's largest mall and popular tourist attractions like a 16th-century fort in the historic part of Puerto Rico's capital.

Backup generators roared to life at the island's largest public hospital and at its main international airport, where officials reported no cancellations or delays. Meanwhile, the power company said its own customer service centre was out of service and asked people to go online or use the phone.

Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centres and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes.

Carmen Yulin Cruz, mayor of the capital of San Juan, said the outage would not interrupt the last of a two-game series between the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins, which is being played on the island. She said all emergency systems at Hiram Bithorn stadium are functioning and that tower lights and additional security will be placed at the stadium's parking lot.

Justo Gonzalez, the power company's executive sub-director, said a private contractor removing a collapsed tower during unrelated power restoration efforts hit the transmission line on Wednesday with an excavator.

Hurricane season starts June 1

It is the second such incident in less than a week. On Thursday, a tree fell on a power line as crews were clearing land in central Puerto Rico, leading to a widespread power outage. A backup line that was supposed to prevent that outage failed.

Fredyson Martinez, vice president of a union that represents power company workers in Puerto Rico, told The Associated Press that he was concerned about the two back-to-back incidents.

"That is not normal," he said.

Power company spokesperson Yohari Molina told The Associated Press that crews were investigating what caused the blackout, saying she had no other details.

Some 40,000 power customers were still without normal electricity service as a result of Hurricane Maria. As well, tens of thousands are said to have fled the island for mainland U.S. in the wake of the devastation, in particular to New York and Florida.

Angel Figueroa, president of the union that represents power company workers in Puerto Rico, said it appears that a failure on a main line caused the island's entire electrical grid to shut down to protect itself.

Rivera said he worries that such serious power outages are still occurring as the new Atlantic hurricane season, which starts on June 1, approaches.

"If there's a slight storm, we're going to be worse off than we are right now," he said.

Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize the island's power grid, noting that up to 75 per cent of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said they hope to have the entire island fully energized by May. 

The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island's power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.