SAN JUAN – Power was slowly being restored in Puerto Rico on Thursday, nearly 24 hours after a blackout swept across the island when a fire at a power plant set off a cascade of problems that knocked out the aging utility grid.
Some 200,000 customers had electricity back by early Thursday afternoon, and officials said that number could reach a half million in the next several hours. But it will be Friday before nearly all of the power company’s 1.5 million customers are reconnected, said Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who declared a state of emergency.
He said he understood people’s frustrations and the need to blame someone for the blackout, which plunged the US territory’s 3.5 million inhabitants into darkness amid a decade-long economic crisis that has worn Puerto Ricans down.
“We all want the system to be back online,” Garcia said. “Let’s hold someone responsible for this. Blame me. I’ll take the blame. What’s another stripe on the tiger?”
Frustration mounted Thursday among Puerto Ricans, most of whom don’t have generators and were forced them to spend Wednesday night in darkness and without air conditioning in the tropical heat. They awoke to find most businesses and public offices closed, and officials saying it could be 24 hours before power would be fully restored.
“Puerto Rico is not prepared for something like this,” said Celestino Ayala Santiago, who slept in his car so he could have some air conditioning to escape the heat.
At least one person died overnight from exposure to carbon monoxide after setting up a personal generator, and a 76-year-old man was taken to the hospital in good condition after spending the night trapped in an elevator at a government building, Garcia said.
Crews were connecting gas turbines at larger power plants to help restore power, but they often had to repeat the process because demand overpowered the system, officials said.
Localized power outages are common in Puerto Rico, which has an outdated energy infrastructure, but widespread failures such as this generally have happened only with tropical storms. “This is an apocalypse,” Jose Tavela said as he ate breakfast at a small cafe in the capital that had a generator.
Utility officials said they were trying to determine what caused the fire Wednesday afternoon at the Aguirre power plant in the southern town of Salinas and triggered the larger outage.
The fire apparently knocked out two transmission lines that serve the broader grid, which tripped circuit breakers that automatically shut down the flow of power as a preventive measure, said Yohari Molina, a spokeswoman for the Electric Power Authority.
Garcia said a switch where the fire occurred had been properly maintained, rejecting suggestions the outage stemmed from maintenance problems that have plagued the utility for years, largely a result of the island’s deep economic and fiscal crisis.
He warned that restoring power would be a slow process. “Given that the system is so old, numerous setbacks could occur,” he said. “The system is not designed to withstand a failure of this magnitude.”