With less than a day before the official start of hurricane season, Puerto Rico’s perpetually feeble power grid faces the possibility of another calamitous collapse like the one brought about by Hurricane Maria last fall.
More than 11,000 Puerto Ricans are currently without power, the AP reported on Thursday, with the director of the island’s power company estimating it could take two more months to bring the grid fully back online. With hurricane season starting on Friday, experts warn that even a minor landfall could have catastrophic consequences for Puerto Rico.
“The grid is there, but the grid isn’t there. It’s teetering,” Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico’s commissioner of public safety, told Time. “Even if it’s a (Category) 1, it is in such a state that I think we’re going to lose power. I don’t know for how long.”
Renewed concern over Puerto Rico’s fragile infrastructure comes after a Harvard-sponsored study calculated that Hurricane Maria was responsible for nearly 5,000 deaths on the island—more than 70 times the official death toll. In the study, researchers explicitly pinned the high mortality rate on “interruption of medical care [...] in the months after the hurricane.” Those interruptions were captured by former Governor Alejandro García Padilla, who shared an image of surgeons operating by cell phone flashlight a month after Maria made landfall.
And while Puerto Rico has spent the past eight months working to rebuild its crumbling power grid, much of the repairs made after the storm are wholly inadequate for the island’s needs. Speaking with Time, power authority workers’ union Vice President Fredyson Martinez estimated that between 10 and 15% of the work down since Maria falls well below industry standards.
“The logistics were terrible. I give it an F,” he said. “Things need to be fixed.”
On Thursday, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority announced that it had awarded a $500 million contract with a Florida-based infrastructure company to help continue repairs to the grid. BuT PREPA director Walt Higgans told the AP that it could take up to $8 billion to bring the entire grid up to modern standards.
After ending their work repairing Puerto Rico’s power lines in mid-May, FEMA announced it would “continue to support” the more than 700 power generators and three mega-generators left on the island while the basic infrastructure is being fixed. But it said it would “no longer provide line restoration work for PREPA.” In other words, FEMA is partially ending its role in one of the most crucial—and tenuous—elements of the island’s electrical recovery, right as Puerto Rico heads, once more, into a summer of storms.