Cheers erupt as is­land emerges from black­out

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Danica Coto The Associated Press

Cheers erupted as lights slowly be­gan to flicker on across Puerto Rico overnight as the U.S. ter­ri­tory strug­gled to emerge from an is­land-wide black­out fol­low­ing a fire at a power plant that caused the aging util­ity grid to fail.

More than 390,000 of 1.5 mil­lion homes and busi­nesses served by the power util­ity had elec­tric­ity re­stored by late Thursday, with cries of, “The lights are back on!” echo­ing through some neigh­bor­hoods.

Gov. Ale­jan­dro Gar­cia Padilla said he ex­pected more than half of cus­tomers to have power by Fri­day morn­ing.

“The num­ber is ris­ing rapidly,” he said, adding that 90 per­cent of cus­tomers will likely have power by Satur­day. How­ever, he cau­tioned: “Prob­lems may arise. I don’t want to cre­ate false ex­pec­ta­tions.”

The black­out hit the en­tire is­land of 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple early Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon and prompted Gar­cia to ac­ti­vate the Na­tional Guard and de­clare a state of emer­gency. Pub­lic schools re­mained closed on Fri­day, and heavy storms that hit the is­land Thursday af­ter­noon knocked out power to some ar­eas where elec­tric­ity had been re­stored.

While those with power cel­e­brated a re­turn to nor­malcy, oth­ers lamented hav­ing to face an­other night in dark­ness with no air con­di­tion­ing in the trop­i­cal heat. Most Puerto Ri­cans don’t have gen­er­a­tors, and many ex­pected to once again drag mat­tresses out to bal­conies and porches to spend the night out­side.

“It’s been hor­ri­ble,” said San Juan res­i­dent El­iz­a­beth Mal­don­ado, adding that she was re­signed to an­other sleep­less night. “I take show­ers ev­ery three hours at night to stay re­freshed.”

For those who could af­ford it, ho­tels of­fered spe­cial rates for res­i­dents that were quickly snapped up.

As sun­set ap­proached on Thursday, long lines formed at ice plants, su­per­mar­kets and gas sta­tions. Else­where, peo­ple crouched around power out­lets at gen­er­a­tor­pow­ered su­per­mar­kets and malls to charge cell­phones.

Traf­fic lights re­mained dark most of Thursday, and po­lice of­fi­cers stood in the streets di­rect­ing traf­fic all day, some in heavy down­pours. Work­ers at the main in­ter­na­tional air­port filled out lug­gage tick­ets by hand.

The gov­er­nor said at least one per­son died the first night from ex­po­sure to car­bon monox­ide af­ter set­ting up a per­sonal gen­er­a­tor. A 76-year-old man was taken to the hos­pi­tal in good con­di­tion af­ter spend­ing the night trapped in an el­e­va­tor at a gov­ern­ment build­ing, Gar­cia said. In ad­di­tion, four po­lice of­fi­cers were hit while di­rect­ing traf­fic but were ex­pected to re­cover.

Lo­cal­ized power out­ages are com­mon in Puerto Rico, which has an out­dated en­ergy in­fras­truc­ture, but wide­spread fail­ures such as this are ex­tremely rare.

The Elec­tric Power Author­ity said it was try­ing to de­ter­mine what caused the fire at the Aguirre power plant in the south­ern town of Sali­nas. The fire ap­par­ently knocked out two trans­mis­sion lines that serve the broader grid, which tripped cir­cuit break­ers that au­to­mat­i­cally shut down the flow of power as a pre­ven­tive mea­sure, of­fi­cials said. Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Javier Quin­tana said a pre­lim­i­nary in­ves­ti­ga­tion sug­gests that an ap­par­ent fail­ure on one trans­mis­sion line that might have been caused by light­ning caused the switch to ex­plode.

Gar­cia re­jected sug­ges­tions the black­out was caused by main­te­nance prob­lems that have plagued the util­ity for years, largely a re­sult of the is­land’s eco­nomic and fis­cal cri­sis. He said the switch where the fire hap­pened had been prop­erly main­tained.


Mo­torists il­lu­mi­nate a store­front with their head­lights as they drive in to buy bread Thursday af­ter a mas­sive black­out, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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