By Daisy Luther
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:
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.
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 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.
Others have said full power and other utilities will not be completely restored until March. (source)
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.
Daisy- this is kind of a side note comment, and certainly not meant to take away from the valuable info you’ve shared above. I just thought people might find it interesting.
My nephew is a lineman and is currently in Puerto Rico. He will be there for 45 days, with no time off and is making NINE hundred dollars a DAY. After his 45 days are over, he will return home for 2 weeks, and then return for another 45 days at the same pay rate. His boss said he expects my nephew will have to do this at least 5 times. So basically in 45 days he makes $40, 500. If he makes 5 visits to PR, he will make over $200,000. Not bad for a 28YO kid, huh?
And that’s only 1 man. He told us there are hundreds of linemen there right now from a plethora of different electrical companies, assumably being given the same pay rate. I get that these guys need to be paid well as we pull them away from their families, and that they do dangerous work, etc, but $900 a day?
Our tax dollars hard at work. Bend over, everyone!
Why..it’s when a business is run by the government.. money doesn’t matter.. unless it yours.. people always make money off others suffering esp governments..
When the MEXICANS come to the USA to work they get a 2040% PAY RAISE over the $4.70 a DAY at home!!!
if they get $11 or $12 an hour.
and FREE meds, rent, ect!
Interesting to see your article this morning. I supervise emergency preparedness and physical security at my small federal agency and yes, we have a field office in Puerto Rico. We also had staff impacted from Harvey and Irma. In Puerto Rico, even today, all the staff’s households are still without power. None of them were prepared, even though we preach preparedness annually in our training, moreso in our security newsletter and repeatedly prior to the arrival of Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Maria.
I recall a conversation with an employee the day before Maria was to make landfall. I asked him about his preparedness. He said, “yeah I need to go grab a little water and food.” He probably heard my gasp and then I proceeded to tell him he was too late probably, and he was… the shelves were bare! This was the same for Hurricane Harvey and Maria. Only a few people had the foresight to go out early and grab a few essential items. I was amazed at the number of staff who didn’t know what an emergency hand crank radio was or how to properly treat water for consumption. People just don’t listen, until it hits them square in the face, and then it is often too late.
Keep writing! We hope to launch a new webinar series in our agency to foster a Culture of Preparedness. It’s never too late to PREP!
Jamie, it is thought provoking that your own employees are not prepared. I guess ‘normalcy bias’ plays a part in that. I know it affects my own preparedness. But I am also prepping on a limited budget. I recognize the need to be prepared. I do what I can. Still shaking my head over employees of a preparedness organization not being prepared…thinking you need to build a new staff, and better vet them….
I guess I should clarify. My federal agency isn’t a preparedness agency or organization. They are involved in combating discrimination in the workplace. I supervise their emergency preparedness and physical security programs; and they were woefully inadequate when I arrived in 2012. It took 2 years to get approval to purchase Shelter-in-Place Station kits. I’d say that most are typical of the populace, believing that the government will respond and take care of them. Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Maria finally gave many a wake up call.
I am thinking of buying a Sun Oven, so I can use the sun to cook when the EMP strikes. Has anyone else invested in this? Any pros or cons?
I have 1 & am quite pleased with it. I got mine off eBay. If you can waiting & keep checking you can get 1 at a good price
You can cook with any pot so long as it is not shinny. Stone & cast iron is good to cook with.
The pros if you use it you will save money. Our light bill went down around $20.00 . The house stays cool & so do we.
It Cooks like a slow cooker so your food is always tasty. You can use the cheap cuts & they turn out very tender.
The only thing you can’t do with a solar oven is fry. You can dehydrated food, purify water, cook frozen food & breads & cakes.
If it’s easy to carry & clean.
The weather does not hinder you cooking much. If you can cast a shadow you can cook no matter the temperature.
The cons. The price, although the company does donate a lot to the poor & also sun ovens so they can cook & even make extra food to sale.
If the wind is blowing over 10 miles a hr you can’t use your oven because the reflectors will act as a sail.
There is a learning curve & if the food had a high sugar content & you don’t watch it your food will burn.
You can go on YouTube & watch the videos on how to use the sun oven.
Over all we are very pleased we have it & use it almost every day.
I would recommend you get one & start using it. If & when you need it you will be a old hand at it. In the mist of a emergency is not the time to start learning.
Pray this helps.
We love our sunoven! You can make anything in a sunoven, that you would in a regular oven. Cooking time is longer, but the food tastes good and does not stick to the pan. Pan clean up is easy, just use a little dish soap and a soft cloth.
We use our sunoven more in the summer, as it saves on electricity. You can enjoy a nice home cooked meal, without heating up the house.
I have fixed lots of foods in the sunoven – cupcakes, corn bread, chicken, pot roast, homemade soup, ribs, pinto beans, and more.
Another benefit is that you can cook in a sun oven without any smoke or telltale aroma, as compared to cooking on a grill. We fix meat in the sunoven on our deck. The door seals tightly on the American sunoven. Neighbor dogs don’t even notice it.
I made my own oven not for cooking but for melting the old dirty beeswax.
Keep plenty of duct tape, good shovel, work gloves, disposable gloves and foil for emergencies.
You may have to trap squirrels for fresh meat, you need a “Have a Heart trap. And if you live near low freeway bridge, hunt for pigeons (squab )at night, they are easier to catch.
Jennifer Contacted the Survivor Mom website about solar lights. I’m in New Mexico, she lives in Northern PR. What she described mirrors this article exactly. No power, water. 3rd World conditions. My heart wept at the devastation there. Red Cross, FEMA assistance is always slow and uneven. So, I got some USPS flat rate boxes, filled them with food and necessary items, and fired them off, hopping I wasn’t being scammed. I can’t cure the island but I’m doing what I can for one family. I tell this grim tale to my friends, and many reach for $20 to cover shipping one large flat rate box.($18.95) I’ve sent ten boxes so far.
COUGH IT UP, MAINLAND AMERICA!! Good men, women and children are in Dire need. Let’s all help tem. By the time politicians (even their own) get off the dim, many more will be lost.
Dimes and nickels won’t do it. Major charities are responding, but their donations are often left sitting on the docks.
OK sheeple where is your lord and god, Tramp, sorry Trump, on this one????? Trump is no different than all the others, do a photo op and then walk away. Wait a minute, Trump did give away paper towels.
Two books I recommend on the topic of the grid:
The first is called The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, by Gretchen Bakke. She has done a number of radio interviews on the subject.
The second: Lights Out, by Ted Koppel. Has to do more with the a possible cyber-attack on the grid.
A great majority of the large transformers in remote areas of the U.S. were delivered years ago by railroad. The railroad tracks in many areas have since been torn up. The logistics to deliver just ONE of these transformers would be huge. It would also take time to time to have them manufactured and shipped.
The Power Grid Is Far More Vulnerable To Cyber Attacks Than Most People Realize – 6/28/17
I found this article while searching for recent articles on the U.S. power grid. I includes some history, interesting links, and other information about the U.S. power grid.
How Secure Is Our Smart Grid? – 2/26/17
“The U.S. Department of Energy released an alarming report in January 2017, saying that the U.S. electric grid is in imminent danger from a cyberattack. So where have we been, where are we now, and where are we going regarding smart grid security?”
FBI Warns of Cyber Threat to Electric Grid – 4/8/16
8/12/13 – The American Society of Civil Engineers recently published a review of our national energy infrastructure, which includes oil and gas production/distribution as well as the electric grids. It received a D rating. “Our world-class economy and modern society cannot be sustained with our current infrastructure.”
“infrastructure in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of significant concern with a strong risk of failure.”
“The power grid has morphed in size tenfold during the past 50 years. While solar flares, cyber attacks, and an EMP are perhaps the most extensive and frightening threats to the electrical system, the infrastructure could just as easily fail in large portions due to weather-related events. The power grid is basically a ticking time bomb which will spawn civil unrest, lack of food, clean water, and a multitude of fires if it does go down.”
I really ne ed the date this article about Puerto Rico was written. My brother is on a blog that has in the past been generous with donations to other disasters. There are a number of their bloggers chiming in , doubting it is that bad. Please help me convince them.
Hi, Lynn! My article was written on Dec. 4.
I just wanted to let you know the energy statistic reported at Status.pr is not percentage of customers who have power – it’s the amount of electricity that is being generated. Many people are still without power due to residential lines being down, or damaged substations. Even neighborhoods that supposed are reported as being energized may only have a few homes that actually are receiving power. I do not live in PR, but I’ve been reading their newspapers online, daily.