Puerto Rico was still reeling Friday from a massive blackout that initially left over a million residents without electricity.
Schools and government offices were closed for a second day as roughly 56 percent of all power customers, about 840,000, remain in the dark as of Friday afternoon.
The two entities in charge of providing electric services to 1.5 million power customers in Puerto Rico was not able to say with certainty when power would be fully restored across the entire U.S. territory.
Frustrated islanders have repeatedly noted the frequency of blackouts unrelated to weather events, with some adding that Puerto Ricans pay much higher electric bills than people on the U.S. mainland.
“This is unbearable,” said Maribel Hernández, 49, a resident of San Juan, the capital.
Hernández, who is recovering from cancer, said she has been sleeping in her outdoor patio due to the overwhelming heat inside her house. Like many other Puerto Ricans, Hernández was also forced to throw out spoiled groceries she couldn’t refrigerate because of the blackout.
The outage began on Wednesday night when a circuit-breaker at the Costa Sur generation plant, one of four main plants on the island, caught fire and caused the remaining power plants to shut down.
Workers from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the bankrupt public corporation in charge of controlling power generation units, have reconnected at least five of the shutdown plants, Executive Director Josué Colón said at a news conference Friday morning.
Puerto Rico’s two largest power plants, Costa Sur and EcoEléctrica, will remain offline until “distribution and transmission work” are completed, a process that could at least take a day, Colón added.
Costa Sur, the largest power plant in Puerto Rico, represents 57 percent of the island’s natural gas-fired electricity generating capacity. A series of strong earthquakes that struck southern Puerto Rico in 2020 significantly damaged both Costa Sur and EcoEléctrica.
Luma Energy, the Canadian-American private company that took over Puerto Rico’s power transmission and distribution last year, have said their crews have been working nonstop to restore the service.
As of Friday afternoon, at least 660,000 customers had their power restored, according to Luma Energy.
The company’s goal is to restore power to 1 million customers by the end of the day Friday, Luma Energy Vice President Kevin Acevedo said during the morning news conference.
Felicia Serrano, the manager of a small grocery store in Barrio Obrero, a San Juan neighborhood, said she lost $2,000 worth of merchandise as a result of the blackout.
Her store runs on a small generator that keeps the lights on but lacks enough power to keep large refrigerators running.
“You’re working under a lot of stress when you have no lights,” Serrano said.
Puerto Rico’s electricity system was decimated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, triggering the world’s second-longest blackout. Emergency repairs were made at the time, but the reconstruction and essential work to modernize the island’s antiquated electric grid has not yet begun. Power company officials blame aging, ill-maintained infrastructure for the ongoing outages.
The federal government has already committed $12 billion in aid toward revamping Puerto Rico’s energy sector. According to Luma, part of that money is currently being used to replace outdated breakers like the one that blew up at the Costa Sur generation plant.
In a news conference Thursday afternoon outside the damaged power plant, a Luma Energy official said many of the breakers being replaced are over 40 years old — though this piece of equipment normally has a 30-year lifespan.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority is still in the process of restructuring its $9 billion in public debt, the largest of any U.S. public corporation when it declared bankruptcy in 2017.
This is not the first time that power station fires have caused blackouts in Puerto Rico. Last June, a large fire at a substation in San Juan left 900,000 customers without power. Another fire at a power plant in September 2016 caused an islandwide blackout.
Associated Press contributed.