The worst possible fears were realized Wednesday morning in Puerto Rico as the entire island awoke without power. Many probably spent the night in the 500 shelters prepared for withstanding what was a Category 5 before it hit the island. As it crossed Puerto Rico, it dropped to a Category 3 with wind speeds of 115 miles per hour. Even before Maria hit, there were still 60,000 without power from Hurricane Irma. Plus structural problems plagued the island's utility company even before that.
That means that the 3.5 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are now without power, and given the precarious state of the system, there is no guarantee when it will come back on. The BBC reported that Abner Gómez, the head of the disaster management agency, claimed everything in the storm's path was destroyed. "The information we received is not encouraging," Gómez said at a news conference Wednesday.
During the last storm, Irma, which never made direct contact with the island, about 1 million of the 1.5 million electricity customers were without power. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority is not well prepared to deal with a storm of this strength due to its high levels of debt. In its filling, the authority called the electric grid and power plants "degraded and unsafe" thanks to underinvestment.
Depending on how long it takes to get everybody back online, the effects could literally be deadly. In Florida eight seniors died after the power went out and the retirement community they live in was left without air conditioning. Governor Rick Scott called the situation at the time "unfathomable" and called on Florida emergency workers to check nursing homes. The same thing could become necessary in Puerto Rico.
All of this damage will just worsen a really bad situation. Irma was a blow, but the status quo, which includes high electricity prices and common blackouts, was bad to begin with. Moody's wrote a report following Irma that explained just how bleak things have become. It will almost certainly take help from the U.S. federal government to resolve the mess. The report says:
PREPA’s current weak financial condition will affect the utility’s ability to quickly repair and restore service after this natural disaster, highlighting the challenges faced by PREPA, inclu ding its reliance on an aging electric infrastructure in need of significant capital improvements.
Puerto Rico didn't budget much for disasters, which could mean that the Department of Energy could get involved, The Washington Post reported. One executive told the paper that Irma and now Maria could "force the Energy Department and federal government to come in with massive aid to rebuild new plants quickly."
Any plan that wouldn't add to the debt is preferable to Puerto Rico paying it. Improvements before the storm were estimated at $4 billion, and the damage could increase the total. Furthermore, they're already in debt. The electric authority had worked out a plan to service its $9 billion in debt, including four cents a kilowatt hour paid by consumers, but the U.S. Congress rejected the plan.
Meanwhile those on the island are in dire straits. For those in the mainland United States with family on the island, some on Twitter are trying to calm frayed nerves, given that no power means no communication either. "If you have family in Puerto Rico, its Governor says the island will suffer nearly 100% power loss. No contact doesn't mean the worst," one user wrote.
Others were already asking for prayers. "Please pray with me for my family and the many residents of Puerto Rico. Roads are ruined, the power is gone and they need our support," Jake Austin, a Puerto Rican performer said on Twitter.