Puerto Rico Blackout

John Mclaughlin/WCBS 880

Some Lights Return In San Juan After Puerto Rico Is Hit With Island-Wide Blackout

April 18, 2018 - 1:35 pm
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SAN JUAN (WCBS 880/CBS News/AP) -- Puerto Rico was hit with an island-wide blackout Wednesday, as the U.S. territory continued to struggle with an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria.

On Wednesday evening, some lights were returning in San Juan. And thanks to extra generators, the lights were all on for the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians' game in the capital city.

A small number of other municipalities on the island also had service resume by Wednesday evening.

By the 7 p.m. hour, WCBS 880 Traffic Producer John McLaughlin reported to Steve Scott that some lights were coming back near the Hiram Bithorn stadium where the Indians and Twins were playing. McLaughlin said lights were back at a nearby alternate parking lot site, and some traffic lights were also working near the ballpark – though only a small number.

But officials said it could take 24 to 36 hours to fully restore power to more than 1.4 million customers as outrage grew across the island about the state of Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority.

“Everybody, unless they had a backup generator to go, they were without power. Our hotel was without power, and all the lights in the main section of San Juan,” McLaughlin said. “The old city doesn’t have very many traffic lights, but in the main downtown area, all the traffic lights were out.”

This was the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers.

"This is too much," said Luis Oscar Rivera, a 42-year-old computer technician who just got normal power back at his house less than two months ago. "It's like the first day of Maria all over again."

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since the Category 4 storm struck on Sept. 20 that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. It 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 Castillo San Cristóbal, 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.

An excavator that accidentally severed a line was blamed for the outage.

CBS News correspondent David Begnaud, who has reported extensively on the island's devastation, reported the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said one specific 230-kV line that runs from the Aguirre complex in Salinas to the AES plant in Guayama had a failure in one of its phases. The cause of the failure, as pointed out in multiple published reports, was a crew from the private U.S. contractor Cobra Energy that hit the transmission line with the crane.

The same company caused the outage last week, according to published reports.

Residents of Puerto Rico have been through numerous power outages since Maria struck the island.

“They definitely don’t seem to be very fazed by it. It seems like this is a relatively common occurrence, and they’re just going about their day as best as they can,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said a ranger at Castillo San Cristóbal had said infrastructure, and not Hurricane Maria, was to blame for the outage. Many say outages are expected periodically, McLaughlin said.

The last of the two-game series between the Indians and Twins went ahead Wednesday night.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz had earlier said the outage would not interrupt the game. She said all emergency systems at Hiram Bithorn stadium were functioning amid the outage, and tower lights and additional security were placed at the stadium's parking lot.

“It is going to be interesting to see how they manage to pull that off with generator power, because a lot of the stadium was – it looked to be damaged anyway by the hurricane, and the bleachers – I’m not sure if they were a permanent fixture of the stadium or not, but they did have to redo some lighting, and the Hiram Bithorn statue out front looks to have been damaged and is only just a pedestal now – the statue, I think, they took away for repairs,” McLaughlin said before the game.

But during the game, he said few fans even seemed to be thinking about the outage. As with any other night at the ballpark, speakers blared, lamps shined and beer flowed.

"Today was a bad day for Puerto Rico," said Jesus Solomon, a contractor who was at the game with his two sons. "However, we must remember, we have been through much worse."

"The scope of the outage gets your attention," added Twins manager Paul Molitor.

There were four Puerto Ricans in the lineups for the finale of MLB's first regular-season series on the island since 2010. Minnesota had outfielder Eddie Rosario and starting pitcher Jose Berrios, while Cleveland had Francisco Lindor — who hit a two-run home run in the Indians' 6-1 series-opening win Tuesday night — and catcher Roberto Perez.

Indians manager Terry Francona said his team spent the day working under the assumption that the game was on and that things would work out.

But he also offered perspective, noting that his team was staying in an upscale hotel where the lights and air conditioning worked.

Francona knows that if he'd ventured into the countryside a bit, he would have seen a much different side of the after-Maria story.

"I don't think we're really going to know the true, what these people have endured," Francona said. "Seems a little silly to complain about not getting electricity for an hour in the clubhouse when people have been living like that for a year."

Elsewhere, Begnaud reported that the power authority prioritized restoring electricity to hospitals, the airport and gas stations. Residences would receive the lowest priority.

He reported that the main hospital in San Juan decided to run on a generator instead of the power grid since the hurricane because the generator was more reliable.

Angel Figueroa, president of a union that represents power company workers in Puerto Rico, earlier told reporters that it appeared a failure caused the entire electrical grid to shut down to protect itself. He said the union is investigating why a breaker at a main power station in the island's southern region did not function when the outage occurred. He noted it was the same problem that caused a 2016 power outage that affected the entire island.

Rivera said he worries that such serious power outages are still occurring as the new Atlantic hurricane season, which starts on June 1, approaches.

"If there's a slight storm, we're going to be worse off than we are right now," he said.

Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize the island's power grid, noting that up to 75 percent of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding.

McLaughlin said there was still some visible damage to buildings in San Juan dating back to Maria, though there is also an emphasis on rebooting tourism in Puerto Rico.

“A lot of the buildings are somewhat damaged – not terribly beyond repair. There’s one section of the old city that I did see that there was a tarp over some of the buildings, but beyond that, most everything looks like it’s up and operational,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting tourists to come back here. A lot of people – we were at the game last night – that was one thing they were stressing, ‘Tell your friends, Puerto Rico is open for business,’ basically.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said they hope to have the entire island fully energized by May. Some 40,000 power customers still remain without normal electrical service as a result of the hurricane.

The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island's power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.

(Copyright 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)