Puerto Rico: Power Outage Leaves Island In Blackout After Fire

Puerto Rico faced a massive power outage Wednesday after a fire at a major power plant. The Electric Power Authority, Puerto Rico’s government-run electric and power company, claims that the power outage was caused by a fire at the Aguirre power plant. No injuries were reported to have been caused by the fire itself, and the agency has stated that the situation at Aguirre is under control.

According to CNN, some 1.5 million people in Puerto Rico were left without power Wednesday night in a blackout that blanketed almost the entire island. Traffic jams and business closures were common throughout the country. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the governor of Puerto Rico, has stated that telecommunications systems are working as usual, and the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport will remain open and in service. However, Padilla stressed that a full restoration of power could take quite some time.

“Given that the system is so old, numerous setbacks could occur” in the process of correcting the problem, Governor Padilla said.

A police officer in San Juan, Puerto Rico directs traffic during the power outage.

In addition to businesses closing their doors, classes at public schools and universities in Puerto Rico were called off and hospitals canceled all non-essential appointments Thursday morning. A number of small fires were reported overnight, caused by outdated generators and citizens using candles and open flames for light, but there were no injuries. There have been no reports of looting or crimes of opportunity during the blackout.

According to ABC News, the fire at the Aguirre plant in southern Puerto Rico began Wednesday afternoon and destroyed two major transmission lines carrying 230,000 volts each. No cause has been determined as of yet, but officials say that sabotage is unlikely. It is unknown how much permanent damage was caused, but the cost of repairing or replacing equipment will no doubt strain the Electric Power Authority, which is already $9 billion in debt.

Puerto Rico as a whole has been plagued by a financial crisis that has lasted the better part of the last decade. The government, which is itself in debt to the tune of nearly $70 billion, is in desperate need of funds. The New York Times reported that Puerto Rico, which has long sold municipal bonds to investors as a means of generating revenue, can no longer afford to pay without cutting essential services. The island country has defaulted on more than $2 billion dollars in payments over the last year.

In June, the Supreme Court rejected a proposal that would allow public utilities in Puerto Rico, such as the Electric Power Authority, to restructure their debt. Utility officials have said that the restructuring is necessary for the company to afford maintenance and to upgrade aging equipment. Governor Padilla has expressed concern at the seeming lack of assistance from the United States.

“We have repeatedly traveled to Washington to convey the urgency of the situation. So far, no action has been taken,” Padilla said.

Citizens line up outside one of the few buisnesses open during the Puerto Rico power outage.

President Barack Obama created a panel of economic and legal experts to formulate a plan to solve Puerto Rico’s debt woes, and it will be up to Congress to pass legislation to finalize that deal. In the meantime, Padilla has used his executive authority to halt payments, just to keep the lights on — lights that went out Wednesday in the already strained country.

As of Thursday morning, officials have been able to restore power to roughly 130,000 customers out of the 1.5 million who have suffered from the blackout in Puerto Rico. Javier Quintana, the executive director of the Electric Power Authority, said in a statement that he hopes to have full service restored sometime on Friday. The power outage, however, is a symptom of a much larger issue. Without debt relief, it is likely that Puerto Rico will suffer further interruptions in utilities and other essential services like health care and public education.

[Featured Image by Carlos Giusti/AP Images]