Puerto Rico, Electricity, and Helplessness

AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGORICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since hurricanes pummeled the Caribbean a few months ago, I’ve felt scared and helpless about Puerto Rico’s electricity situation. How is it possible that a US commonwealth has been without power for 7 weeks?

I had the pleasure of traveling to Puerto Rico 8 years ago with a girlfriend. I also worked closely with someone from Puerto Rico at my last job. Not that I need to have visited a place or know someone from a place to care about it, but it certainly helps.

So in the aftermath of the hurricanes, I wanted to help. I found a charity recommended by a friend from Puerto Rico and donated to it. At the time, it felt good to do something, and I figured the island would be back on its feet soon. This is America, after all. We help each other.

But then the days and weeks past, and Puerto Rico continued to go without power. Current estimates are that 90-95% of Puerto Ricans still have no electricity.

Can you imagine going even a few days without electricity in 2017? It’s inconceivable. Imagine if the electric grid went down in New York for 2 days. It would be a national crisis. Yet Puerto Rico, a US commonwealth, has had no power for 7 weeks.

I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly why Puerto Rico has been without power for so long, and I finally found an article to explain it. I’d highly recommend checking out the video, as it explains a complex, interlocking system of issues in a clear, concise way.

This blog post doesn’t have a tidy conclusion, a lesson, or a call to action. I guess I just had to get off my chest how I’m bewildered and baffled that somehow this issue has fallen out of the headlines, because it’s still happening.

It’s a small thing, but tomorrow my company will be making a donation of $1500 to the Hispanic Federation and their “Unidos” Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund, thanks to the inspiration of Jack Eddy at The Cardboard Herald and the generous support of Daniel Halem to our annual charity auction (we’re matching $500 of Daniel’s winning bid for an auction item we donated). It won’t stop me from feeling helpless, but hopefully it’ll do some good for my fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.

What’s the longest you’ve ever been without electricity? Camping trips aside, for me the longest is maybe 12 hours.

18 thoughts on “Puerto Rico, Electricity, and Helplessness”

  1. I was living in Orlando in 2004 when we were struck by a series of hurricanes. The eye of the first, Charley, passed directly over our house (we went outside for a bit while the eye passed over, and surveyed the damage). We lost a huge tree in our yard… broke apart before my eyes as we watched from inside. A neighbor on the next street lost the majority of their roof by the time the eye even passed so it was raining right down into their kitchen (it was an older, small house with no attic). It was really pretty crazy actually considering how far inland Orlando is. We were without power for 8 days. In August. It was hot. Really, really hot. And, some other areas were without power for longer. Between then and the next hurricane a few weeks later, we bought a generator so we at least had some power for the next few hurricanes. (although power wasn’t ever out for as many days for those).

    What a difference it made though. I remember getting Fuzzy (my dog) all wet to cool her off and holding her up above a big industrial sized fan my parents had, letting the wind blow her face to keep her cool. Just having electric fans and your refrigerator to keep drinks cold and make ice… that’s all we used the generator for but it was a huge difference. Those 8 days after Charley with nothing were miserable in the Florida summer heat.

    As far Puerto Rico, it is pretty crazy to think they have been without power that long. I actually know a ton of people who have family there. My high school more than 50% Hispanic, with the majority being Puerto Rican… either from there themselves, or with their parents being from there. I have been very sad thinking about all the people I know who have relatives there, especially grandparents who are suffering. It is very sad no matter what but putting names and faces to that suffering… The island has been suffering economically for a long time. This storm was devastating. Already the area I grew up in has seen a huge number of people from there coming over either temporarily or to stay. (so I am told) I don’t know how many will go back if the rebuilding takes as long as it might.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your experiences with Charley, Cynthia. 8 days seems like a really long time to be without power, especially in extreme heat (or extreme cold). I’m hoping it’s somewhat temperate in Puerto Rico right now.

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      • Yes I have been thinking the same. The summer would have been worse. But this time of year it is usually gets up into the mid to high 80’s. It is much better than Florida was in August but we had power back in a week or two everywhere there. I’m sure even with a high of 85 it is really old by now. 🙁 And, with so much devestation it is just hard to get back to life….. I think about that often too… not just how uncomfortable it must be but how MANY man hours are wasted just trying to put things kind of back to normal, not even helping the economy grow or helping to make life better than it was before, but just making the situation more or less live-able again.

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        • Also, in both Florida and Puerto Rico you don’t get much relief even at night. That is one of my favorite things about moving to Georgia… even on a hot day, it still cools off at night. But in Puerto Rico it looks like its 76 at the lowest point in the middle of the night. (and probably muggy, if anything like Florida). It just makes it rougher to go that long when you don’t even have a cool evening breeze to give you a little bit of relief.

          I really, really hope they get power back soon!

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        • “how MANY man hours are wasted just trying to put things kind of back to normal, not even helping the economy grow or helping to make life better than it was before, but just making the situation more or less live-able again.”

          That’s a spot-on observation.

          Reply
  2. Thank you for that article, Jamey. I’ve also been wondering about the situation in Puerto Rico. As for your question, as a teen, my family and I were without electricity for around 5 days during “The Great Ice Storm of 1998”. I don’t remember it being that bad, we were pretty much camping in an interior room of our house to try to stay warm, which can be difficult in January in Canada! We had food and lots of warm clothes so we were never in danger, and remember just being aggravated that I couldn’t play with my Super Nintendo until power was restored. We were fortunate not to have any casualties in our area and be out of power for “only” 5 days while in some parts of the province people didn’t get power until several weeks later Despite that experience, I couldn’t imagine going 5 days without electricity now… I get antsy when we lose power for just a few hours!

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  3. We have Family who own a plantation on the south side. They’ve been told it could be a YEAR before they are back on the grid. The infrastructure there is just beyond repair. We’re working with some friends here. If things go well, we may be sailing down there with a solar array and batteries. It’s a long shot, but miracles happen.

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  4. Jamey,

    In 2005, Hurricane Wilma arrived in Cancun and for many of us, we were at the mercy of the storm as airlines simply stopped flying from the resort location. While I can’t tell you enough great things about the people who work at Hoteles Solaris (My wife and I actually became members that week, and it’s a timeshare that I now possess and take my daughter every year), the same can’t be said for the staffs of other hotels, who handed their guests an orange and a bottle of water, sihed them buena suerte (good luck) and sent them on their way to the abandoned airports.

    While we had power into the first evening, the generator attached to the vocational college where we sought refuge, about 30 miles inland, that was completely lost by the second day. At that point, we operated small fans to keep the children and elderly cool while the rest of us conserved our energy. We stayed at the college for another two nights, before we could return to the hotel. For those that don’t know about Wilma, it lingered, as in on vacation itself, over the Yucatan Peninsula for more than 48 hours and at one point, I ventured outside the college through a doorway which had ripped off of its hinges to gaze upward into the eye of the storm. The calm and color was absolutely breathtaking and it’s an image I’ll remember forever.

    The fact that we didn’t have electricity, in some ways, made us more human…there was a lot more interaction between and among the guests and the staff. We helped each other…we cared for one another. What our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters have endured is unimaginable pain and loss and my heart goes out to them, along with donations through my church. It is a shame that in the new world of 24-hour news cycle, we care deeply but not for very long on any issue. From the multiple hurricanes, to the recent shootings and terrorist attacks in Las Vegas, New York, and San Antonio, we brace ourselves for the next one, before we really understand the last one which affected us so deeply.

    Joe

    Reply
    • Joe: Thank you so much for sharing this. You said some things in your final paragraph that I wanted to write, but I couldn’t find the words for.

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    • I agree about the no electricity bringing people together… it was like that with us after Charley (and the other hurricanes that followed during the next two months). It was “only” 8 days but we got to know my parents neighbors that we hadn’t even met in the year or so they had lived in that house… everyone was out helping each other. We were trapped in the neighborhood because the only road out of it had several very large trees downed across it (along with downed power lines which was scary since we didn’t ever know if they would be hot or not so we had to be super careful). So we had to crop up these huge trees with chainsaws and axes and drag the pieces out of the road so we could get out. People went around checking each house especially looking for elderly people who might need help… it was really remarkable to see when you’re used to a society that kind of keeps to themselves and stays inside. As hot as it was, inside your house was just as hot, and it drew people out in to the street to help each other. I wouldn’t ever wish any of that on anyone, and anything that causes destruction makes me sick, thinking of the waste and loss. But, there were good things that came out of it and I have thought of that time often, and how we should help each other more, not just when we are put in situations where we kind of have to.

      Reply
  5. Back in 1987 when I was about 9 the UK was hit by realy bad storm (it’s on Wikipedia as the Great Storm of 1987). At the time I lived in a country village and we were without power for about a week (and I seem to recall the roads out of the village were all blocked for about 3 days). Obviously as a kid I thought it was a fantastic adventure rather than something my parents had to struggle to cope with.

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  6. Where I was in New Jersey we were without power for about a week during hurricane Sandy. We we’re lucky, most people seemed to be out for two to three weeks.

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    • I think the common thread in these comments is that I’ve gotten lucky! I’m sorry you all had to go through a week of no power.

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  7. I am the United States transportation command joint planning team leader for Puerto Rico support. We just sent the USNS Brittin down there with literally tons of electric repair equipment and repair supplies. She will unload today. She will make one more turn from the US mainland. It’s been a long road to get to this point. The next problem is getting this stuff inland where it is needed the most.

    Reply

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