Corrections & clarifications: An earlier version of this story misidentified the date in which Hurricane Maria landed in Puerto Rico.
Five months ago, Puerto Rico began its plunge into the longest blackout in U.S. history.
After much struggle and a botched contract to restore power, the embattled island showed some progress in its recovery from Hurricane Maria. Then Sunday, the lights went out again: An explosion and fire at two power plants shrouded much of the northern part of the island in darkness.
Most customers hit by the blackout had their power restored by Monday. But the incident underscores the challenges of recovering from a major storm on an island with aging infrastructure. It's a reminder that the U.S. territory will probably have a longer, tougher road to recovery than other states battered by recent storms.
Union leader Angel Figueroa Jaramillo, who represents Puerto Rico's public electrical workers, spoke outside one of the damaged power stations and warned against privatizing the electrical system, something Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has favored.
“It’s been five months without power," Jaramillo said, according to The Washington Post. "We could have made much more progress than this.”
Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm with 155-mph winds, ripped through the middle of the island Sept. 20. It destroyed thousands of homes, killed at least 64 people and left thousands without electricity or water for months. As of Monday, 99% of customers in Puerto Rico had running water, and 84% of the island had power back. More than 400,000 customers still don’t have electricity.
Restoring power, in particular, has been a challenge. Renewed blackouts occur just as homes regain electricity. Sunday’s blackout happened when fires knocked offline two substations near San Juan, power company spokesman Geraldo Quinones told the Associated Press. The substations were repaired by dawn, and most customers — including Puerto Rico’s largest public hospital and its main international airport — had power restored, he said.
“They’ll be working throughout today to fully restore service,” Quinones said, adding that authorities are investigating what caused the fire.
Photos posted to Twitter by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, showed charred equipment at one of the substations, and a video captured the fire at one of the plants as workers tried to control the blaze.
The outage is the latest in a series of setbacks that has prevented the island’s recovery. PREPA is heavily in debt and struggling to patch up a power grid that is outdated and in dire need of restoration.
A U.S. contractor initially hired by the power company to restore electricity was fired after delays and controversies over how the contract was awarded.
Rosselló said last month that he plans to privatize PREPA, which relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average. It would be the largest restructuring of a public entity in U.S. history.
Other areas of recovery have had similar challenges. Last week, The New York Times reported that a one-person, Atlanta-based company delivered only 50,000 meals instead of the 30 million called for in its contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA said the disaster relief agency has delivered more than 50 million meals to Puerto Rico since the storm.
Restoring power to the entire island remains one of the top concerns.
PREPA board President Jose Carrion said Monday at a Puerto Rico investment summit that the power company has been bankrupted by administrators and abused by corruption and that privatization is needed even after power is fully restored.
“The same inefficiencies that have dragged the utility for decades remain,” he said. “Of all the realities (Hurricanes) Irma and Maria confronted us with, without a doubt the most evident is that Puerto Rico’s energy system does not work.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.