As the sun came up on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria, it was clear life would be forever different. Weak, old electric grids reliant on outdated infrastructure were basically wiped out by Category 4 winds, and the replacement process dragged on to the point that it became the worst blackout in U.S. history. A new analysis puts it in a global context. It’s not pretty.
Hurricane Maria like caused the second-worst blackout the world has ever experienced, according to the Rhodium Group. The islands saw a combined 3.93 billion hours in electricity lost, or nearly 1,000 hours in the dark for every resident.
Only Super Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in 2013, caused the lights to stay out longer (though, the analysts note, there could be other blackouts they missed). With power largely restored on the islands, the Maria-related blackout isn’t going to top the 6.1 billion hours in power lost in the Philippines. But the islands are hardly ready for the next storm.
The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season is rapidly approaching (the official start date is June 1). On Wednesday, the Army Corps of Engineers testified that the rickety grids have only been marginally improved since Maria hit in September as a strong Category 4 storm.
“It is not the resilient grid that we all recognize is needed, but it’s in better condition,” Ray Alexander, an Army Corps director who led the grid reconstruction, told Congress.
Whether that means it can withstand the next storm is unclear, but there’s not a lot of optimism on the island. Ivette Sosa, a Telemundo Puerto Rico journalist, told Grist’s Eric Holthaus her sense of where things stand:
“Puerto Rico is not ready for another hurricane. We still have blue roofs on hundreds of houses all over the island. We have municipalities that still do not have electricity, and people in those areas are getting desperate.
Puerto Ricans (including myself) are soooo worried of what would happen here if another system comes along our way!”
All this points to the need for the federal and territory governments to get it together. As if on cue, one of the main grid arteries went down on Thursday. According to David Begnaud of CBS News, failures on that line have caused outages for 1.47 million customers in the past.
Yet there are signs the wheels are starting to slowly turn to imagine Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands’ future (hopefully resilient) grid.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development just kicked Puerto Rico $18.4 billion in disaster relief, with another $10 billion split across the U.S. Virgin Islands and other hurricane-afflicted states. HUD Secretary Ben Carson said $2 billion of the money for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is earmarked for the grid in an interview with USA Today.
The Department of Energy is also creating a plan for what a new grid would look like. According to E&E News, national labs are imagining how to “build a first-ever digital model of Puerto Rico’s grid that will allow managers to sort through options in case of emergency.” That’s in addition to microgrids, renewables, and other solutions that would break the island’s dependency on imported oil.
Let’s hope some of these plans can be realized soon. Even if Puerto Rico emerges unscathed this coming hurricane season, it’s operating on borrowed time in a world where hurricanes are likely to only become more severe due to climate change.