When Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico last Saturday with 155mph winds, hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed and the entire island was left in a total blackout. After a natural disaster such as this, residents would usually go about their lives and pick up the pieces along the way. Not this time. Due to the island’s poor infrastructure, economic woes and the damage caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, it could be months before millions of people have access to electricity again.
It wasn’t hard for Hurricane Maria to wipe out the entire island’s electricity because the power grid has been in poor shape for years. Whereas most power plants are 18-years-old, those belonging to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) — the island’s sole power supplier to 1.5 million people — are 44 years old, on average. In July of this year, PREPA filed for bankruptcy and called its own system “degraded and unsafe.” In a fiscal plan released this year, it added that “years of under-investment have led to severe degradation of infrastructure.”
The electricity outage was also caused by Puerto Rico’s grim economic situation. The island has yet to emerge from a recession that has lasted over a decade. With an unemployment rate of 11 percent, the government entered into a process similar to bankruptcy protection earlier this May. TIME reports that its debt load is currently in excess of $70 billion.
As a result of weakening infrastructure, financial problems and the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, restoring the island’s power will be a lengthy, tiresome process. Governor Russello told CNN, “It depends on the damage to the infrastructure. I’m afraid it’s probably going to be severe. If it is … we’re looking at months as opposed to weeks or days.”
Hurricane Irma, which skirted the north part of the island earlier this month, is also to blame. At the time, over 1 million users in Puerto Rico lost power. The day before Maria slammed into the island, 70,000 people were still without power, reports CNBC. To solve this tragedy, Rep. Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon brought up the issue of electric supply with Brock Long, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). She said, “We were asking him to have more resources in terms of electrical teams that can help us out to solve the situation and recover the infrastructure of the power grid on the island,” she said. “That is going to be the main issue.”
Rossello has also asked President Trump to declare Puerto Rico a disaster zone. On Monday, Trump made an emergency declaration for the island, which enabled FEMA to coordinate relief efforts. However, only a “major disaster” declaration would ensure the territory receives an increase in federal resources and programs for affected areas to recover. Vox reports that even if Congress agrees to provide extra relief, funds would only be of limited help in this situation.