OROCOVIS, Puerto Rico – An island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico in April as the U.S. territory struggled to repair an increasingly unstable power grid nearly eight months after Hurricane Maria. Officials said an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line.
Outrage over the state of Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority continues since the Category 4 storm struck on Sept. 20. It was the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers.
It has made it nearly impossible for residents in the town of Orocovis to return to normalcy. Some residents have yet to get water service back.
The blackouts have snarled traffic across the island, interrupted classes and work and forced dozens of businesses to temporarily close, including the island’s largest mall and popular tourist attractions like a 16th-century fort in the historic part of Puerto Rico’s capital.
Backup generators roared to life at the island’s largest public hospital and at its main international airport, where officials reported no cancellations or delays. Meanwhile, the power company said its own customer service center was out of service and asked people to go online or use the phone.
Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centers and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes.
Justo Gonzalez, the power company’s executive sub-director, told reporters in April that a private contractor removing a collapsed tower during unrelated power restoration efforts near the south coast hit the transmission line on Wednesday with an excavator.
Government officials said that a company hired by Cobra Energy known as Dgrimm was involved in both incidents that led to the power outages. Dgrimm had been asked to change its security protocols after the first incident, and it has since been terminated, said William Rios, power generation director.
Angel Figueroa, president of the power workers’ union, told reporters workers were investigating why a backup breaker at a main power station in the island’s southern region did not function when the outage occurred, causing the entire electrical grid to shut down to protect itself. He noted it was the same problem that caused a 2016 power outage that affected the entire island.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, had hoped to have the entire island fully energized by May. But federal officials who testified before Congress said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize the island’s power grid.