Puerto Rico remains dark as damage assessments begin

Most of Puerto Rico has been without lights or air conditioning for five nights and is looking at many, many more.

Nearly all the island’s 1.6 million electricity customers were still without power, and most phone lines and internet service were also down on Monday afternoon. Hurricane Maria smashed poles, downed power lines and damaged electricity-generating plants last week, knocking out a grid that would be considered antiquated on the U.S. mainland. Generators are providing power to the fortunate few who have them.

Power has been restored to a hospital in the northern city of Bayamon and to most of a major trauma hospital in San Juan, officials said Monday.

But it’s still uncertain when electricity will be restored to most homes and businesses. Authorities are still figuring out the extent of the damage. Utility workers from New York have arrived to help, while airplanes and barges bring in more generators.

Getting the power back isn’t just a matter of comfort. A long delay will mean even more pain for an economy struggling through a decade-long recession. Several hotels evacuated hundreds of guests after generators broke down or ran out of fuel — an early sign of trouble awaiting the tourism industry. With no power, even more people may leave the island to find better opportunities on the mainland, further draining Puerto Rico’s workforce.

Here’s a look at the state of Puerto Rico’s power grid and the challenges to repair it.

WHAT WAS DAMAGED?

There are more than a dozen power plants on the island and they suffered some damage, but that’s not the biggest problem.

“We can repair them,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello. “There is severe damage to the transmission lines.”

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or Prepa, has more than 2,400 miles of major transmission lines and more than 30,000 miles of smaller distribution wires the connect homes and businesses to the grid.

Public Affairs Secretary Ramon Rosario said 80 percent of the island’s transmission and distribution lines were knocked down. He noted that it took four months to restore power to the entire island after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and six months after Hurricane Georges in 1998.

WHEN WILL REPAIRS START?

The assessment of damage is just beginning. Officials hoped to use helicopters and drones to get a better look and help them decide where to send repair crews first.

“We don’t know the complete damage, we don’t know what we need for equipment,” said Mike…

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