Five months after a Category 4 hurricane sparked the longest blackout in U.S. history in Puerto Rico, the island is still struggling with blackouts, water shortages, and insufficient aid.
Northern Puerto Rico returned to a familiar place — total darkness — late Sunday night after an explosion and an electrical fire at the Monacillos power plant impacted a number of areas, including San Juan. Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (PREPA) said that the island had lost approximately 400 megawatts of power generation (around 10 percent of the island’s total power) and uploaded footage of the fire to Twitter.
“State & Municipal firemen on explosion site at Monacillos’ power generation plant. Ambulances also on site. No wounded yet reported,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz tweeted.
That’s cold comfort for much of the island. At least 450,000 Puerto Ricans are still without power five months after Hurricane Maria struck in September. Some estimates place that number closer to 700,000 — 25 percent of the island. Tens of thousands of residents also lack access to clean water.
The storm’s aftermath has sparked a devastating and historic environmental and health crisis. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has compared the state of Puerto Rico to Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The island faced myriad issues prior to Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was already in disrepair, something that has made rebuilding the island following the storm a staggering challenge. The storm destroyed two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s power system, incurring approximately $94 billion in damages and sparking a mass-exodus to the mainland, where many Puerto Ricans have opted to move. Those who have remained are coping with outages at schools and a shortage of functioning hospitals, to say nothing of limited access to other basic necessities.
Puerto Rico’s local government has come under fire as the island struggles to recover. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced the privatization of PREPA in January and more than a quarter of Puerto Rico’s public schools are set to close — all part of a larger effort to cut costs with few immediate results. The move comes after a $300 million contract between PREPA and Whitefish Energy Holdings — a tiny Montana company with ties to the Trump administration — was canceled following outrage from locals who claimed the company was not holding up on its end of the deal.
The lion’s share of blame, however, has fallen on President Trump. The White House downplayed the island’s struggles in the months following the hurricane, with Trump repeatedly leveling blame at the territory for its pre-existing debt and infrastructure deficiencies. The president also clashed numerous times with San Juan Mayor Cruz, who has blasted the administration for its treatment of the island.
Despite its ongoing circumstances, Trump failed to give Puerto Rico more than a passing mention during his January State of the Union address, which came one day after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced it would end food and water aid to Puerto Rico. (FEMA later contradicted the announcement, saying aid would continue.)
FEMA, too, has sparked plenty of backlash: in October, the agency canceled a $156 million contract with a one-woman Atlanta business after her efforts to deliver meals to islanders fell far short of stipulations. Only 50,000 of an expected 30 million meals were ultimately delivered, a problem the woman, Tiffany Brown, had reportedly encountered before. Her company, Tribute Contracting, has had five government contracts terminated for “not delivering required food,” among other things. At least one government agency reportedly stated Brown’s company was not to be hired again.
FEMA has claimed Brown’s company was vetted, sparking criticism from lawmakers.
“To issue a system-wide warning saying, this is not a company to do business with, then how could they have been prepared to do a $156 million contract with a one person operation?” asked Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI).
Blackouts like the one that hit northern Puerto Rico on Sunday — affecting 1.36 million people — are another trouble plaguing the island.
“The lack of power exacerbates everything in the recovery effort,” Peter Marsters, a research analyst at the Rhodium Group, told Vox’s Umair Irfan. “The longer a recovery lasts the longer it takes to get to pre-storm levels.”
The slow-moving recovery could have severe ramifications for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the oncoming hurricane season. The Atlantic hurricane season falls loosely between June and November, during which time islands like Puerto Rico are especially susceptible to massive storms building off the U.S. coast. That means Puerto Rico has less than four months before another Maria-like hurricane could threaten the island once more.