SAN JUAN, P.R. — After seven months and close to $2.5 billion, almost everybody in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico had their lights back on — until a freak accident on Wednesday plunged the entire island once again into darkness.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority had boasted Wednesday morning that less than 3 percent of its customers remained without power, substantially concluding what some estimates called the biggest power failure in United States history. The island of 3.4 million residents was open for business again, government officials said.
It was only a few hours later that an excavator working near a fallen 140-foot transmission tower on the southern part of the island got too close to a high-voltage line. The resulting electrical fault knocked out power to nearly every home and business across the storm-battered American territory, authorities said, a catastrophic failure that could take up to 36 hours to restore.
It was the first time since Hurricane Maria left the island’s power grid in ruins on Sept. 20 that nearly all of the electric company’s 1.5 million customers found themselves in the dark, although another failure less than a week ago had cut power to 870,000 users. Only small pockets generated by microgrids were spared by the latest power loss.
“I’m angry. This is the second time in a row,” Justo González, the electric company’s chief operating officer, said in a telephone interview. “I give the people of Puerto Rico my word: we are going to restore power to every last house.”
Puerto Rican residents, largely resigned to the continuing disruptions, did not seem convinced. “It’s frustrating,” said José Carrillo, 55, whose power was out for three months before being restored in November. “You go three months without electricity and you think you’re getting back to normalcy, and this happens again.”
The utility company scrambled to restore service to the airport, major hospitals and a stadium hosting a Major League Baseball game between the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins. At the close of business on Wednesday, only 51,000 customers had power again — including the baseball stadium. But by Thursday morning, the agency said it had returned power to more than 1.1 million of customers.
Traffic was at a standstill on Wednesday as the few operational stoplights went black. Schools, shopping centers and businesses closed. A Chili’s restaurant went up in flames as its generator exploded, the fire department said.
Many large hotels in San Juan experienced only a temporary power loss until generators kicked in. The lights flickered and went out for about 30 seconds at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, where a news conference was underway to commemorate Roberto Clemente, a Puerto Rico native who played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates and died in a plane crash in while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
“Welcome to Puerto Rico, this is what we know as ‘life,’” Eduardo Perez, a former Major League baseball player and ESPN commentator who was hosting the news conference, told those gathered.
The blackout once again highlighted the fragile nature of Puerto Rico’s power grid, which even after more than $2 billion in repairs managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has not been steady.
Power has gone out in the San Juan metropolitan area at least four times since the storm, forcing Puerto Ricans to spend thousands of dollars to fuel generators. Many residents have left all together: nearly 300 schools are expected to close because of a sharp drop in enrollment.
People are afraid to buy more than a few days of food, and they complain that the constant power failures and surges in voltage have ruined household appliances.
José J. Villamil, an economist who works for a disaster management firm, said the blackouts made it very difficult for businesses to move forward because they keep having to spend money on things like voltage regulators.
“At the individual level, an immediate reaction is that gas stations suddenly have lines of cars waiting to fill up,” he said. “The reason? People have lost confidence that the problem will be resolved.”
Juan de Jiménez Quiñones, 55, said it was like living in another era.
“It’s hasn’t been easy, man,” he said at the San Juan municipal hospital where he was visiting his wife. “You know what’s it like to cook your meals on firewood? It’s like country living.”
The buzz of the generators could be heard as he smoked his cigarette. “Oh God, help us,” said a man from outside the hospital’s sliding glass doors.
Wednesday’s blackout did not really affect Mr. Jiménez: Though the hurricane was seven months ago, his power had never been restored.
Mr. González said the blackout occurred after a large excavator operated by a subcontractor, working to pick up a fallen 140-foot transmission tower in a rural area, got too close to a high-voltage line, which led to a discharge of energy. As a protection measure, the line and the power plant it led to automatically went out of service. But then the other power-generating plants in the south went down, too.
“It took out all the units in the south,” Mr. González said.
The power in Puerto Rico is generated in the south and largely consumed in the north, a situation which leaves long transmission lines vulnerable to damage. The power company, commonly known as Prepa, has not yet been able to build backup systems to avoid massive power failures when something goes wrong, Mr. González said.
The subcontractor operating the excavator was D. Grimm Inc., a company that Puerto Rico officials also blamed for a failure last week that knocked out power to about half the island. The company, which had been subcontracted by Cobra Acquisitions, was fired, Mr. González said.
D. Grimm executives did not return several messages seeking comment. Reached on his cellphone, the chief operating officer said: “I don’t know anything about that,” and the line went dead.
A website for arborists showed the company had advertised for workers to help clear difficult terrain by hand in Puerto Rico. The offer was for $30 an hour, working 10-hour days and seven-day weeks. Commenters on the site balked at the low pay for such treacherous work.
“Despite the frailty of the existing electrical infrastructure system, Cobra is dedicated to the difficult work that lies ahead and continues to work around-the-clock with Prepa and the citizens of Puerto Rico to repair the entire infrastructure system to prevent outages such as this one from affecting the entire population on the island,” Mammoth Energy, the Oklahoma City company that owns Cobra, said in a statement.
There were no injuries, the company said.
The failure on April 12 occurred after a tree fell on the main line to the capital, San Juan. The tree fell as crews working to restore power tried to clear land near Cayey.
Ricardo L. Ramos, the former executive director of the power company who was forced to resign in November over his handling of the restoration, said that the cascade of line failures should not have occurred, based on the design of the grid. Even if one power plant overloaded, he said, the automatic shut-offs should have kicked in only in the affected area.
“The protection system has to be looked at carefully,” Mr. Ramos said in a phone interview. “The system was fragile even before the hurricane. As I described it, it was a junker.”
Leo Del Valle, 54, who lives and works in Caguas, said he went three months without power after Maria. He went home briefly after work on Wednesday and took an ice-cold shower. If the blackout lasts longer than a two days, he said, the food in his refrigerator will go to waste. “Your day-to-day changes completely,” he said. “This wears on you psychologically.”
During his power loss at his home after the hurricane, he said, he probably spent thousands on generators and fuel. His father-in-law spent over $5,000. Mr. Del Valle was more judicious and limited himself to only nine hours a day of generator use.
He noted that hurricane season starts soon.
“If we get hit again, it’ll be a disaster,” he said. “Total chaos.”
Hurricane season starts June 1.
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