Sila Turns The Lights Off… Anger, Frustration Over Power Shutdown Grows

by John Marino

September 17, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Puerto Rico was left looking like a ruined third-world country in the wake of Tropical Storm Jeanne, with the entire island losing power and most people without running water.

The storm had some punch, dumping a foot of rain around the island and bringing winds that at their zenith reached a hurricane strength 80 mph. Three deaths are being attributed to the storm, flooding destroyed poor neighborhoods and crops and downed trees and power lines closed down several roadways. But anybody who lived through Hurricane Georges, which sliced across Puerto Rico from Humacao to Mayaguez with winds in excess of 100 mph, was left scratching their heads wondering why the island was all screwed up after Jeanne, which was a bad piece of weather no doubt, but hardly the stuff of catastrophe. And most have come to the conclusion that human error, rather than nature's wrath, is responsible for making the lives of most of the island's 3.8 million inhabitants rather miserable this week.

Normally, hurricanes are a good time to be governor. There are several prime-time television appearances, and it's hard not to look in control in the war room of the State Emergency Management Agency, surrounded by top government officials and all sorts of high-tech gadgetry. With several near miss storms threatening the island recently, Gov. Calderón actually seemed to be getting the hang of handling the emergencies. And from public relations prospective, it gave the lame-duck governor something important to do in her last few months in office.

But after Jeanne, it's probably a good thing that Calderón opted not to seek reelection to a second term. I doubt she would have been reelected.

To protect power generating plants and transmission lines, the Calderón administration decided to turn off power to the entire island -- a reportedly unprecedented move -- as the storm approached the island. But as it passed the storm came and left, the power did not come back on, and administration officials were not giving clear-cut answers as to when it would return. As I write this, a day after the storm came and left, the great metropolis of San Juan, and most of the island, is completely without power and water. Of course, the lack of power, knocked many island drinking water plants off line, so that fully half of Puerto Rico has no running water. Yet, neither Gov. Calderón nor her top deputies, such as Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Director Hector Rosario, have given answers as to when the power will come back.

It was not until nearly 11 p.m. Wednesday night, when the eye of Jeanne was leaving the island, that Rosario finally gave a press conference, prompted, no doubt by the steady complaints over island airwaves about the lack of information. He said: "It's important for the country to know that at this moment we are working. We have some power in the North and on Vieques and Culebra."

What Rosario did not say is what everyone wanted to hear: when the great majority of Puerto Ricans would have their lights turned back on. He could not say. PREPA would not turn the power back on until the state of transmission lines in the central mountains could be inspected, he said. That was to take place Thursday, and at an early morning press conference, Calderón assured that no power would be turned back on until the lines could be checked. She sited the safety of workers as a paramount concern. The process could take anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks.

It's difficult to know what really happened, why a tropical storm of only limited power was able to leave millions of residents without water or light. In defending her decision, Calderón noted the deaths during Georges of both residents hit by fallen power lines and repairmen working around the clock to get power back on.

Disasters are also a time to band together, and leave aside political fighting, at least until things get back to normal.

But Calderón's handling of Jeanne, and previous storms that threatened the island, will add fire to critics who have questioned her administrative capabilities. It's not just the wide-scale power and water outages. Even before Jeanne, government decisions to close public schools and government offices were made late the night before the decision was to go into effect, leaving people little time to plan. Also, dry laws and other special provisions were enacted without ever clearly telling the public! Leaving millions without water and light for an extended period of time is itself dangerous, and Calderón will have answer for the decision to shut down the entire system, which apparently was an unprecedented move. It's possible that erring on the side of caution is perhaps not the safest way to go.

Resident anger increased with a barrage of reports that human fumbling, rather than wicked weather, was the main reason why most of Puerto Rico was still without light and water two days after the passage of Tropical Storm Jeanne.

A million islanders were still without power Friday and about half of all homes were without water. And embattled Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Director Héctor Rosario was still fumbling to answer the question: when will the lights come back on?

While Gov. Calderón called on the federal government to declare all of Puerto Rico a disaster area, newspaper and radio reports were wondering aloud whether official mishandling of the emergency caused more damage than the storm. One report estimated the economic impact of a day without electricity in Puerto Rico at $80 million, while the biggest impact of Jeanne is probably its impact on the agricultural sector, estimated at $100 million.

The gist of the criticism was the decision by PREPA to shut down the power across the island, rather than letting it shut down through a computerized system that automatically flips power off in specific areas when wind or water conditions deteriorate too drastically.

Only in the face of Category 3 hurricane would utilities normally shut down the power system, which most experts say can cause as much damage as a storm.

One news report quoted a PREPA official saying it would probably be a week before most of the island got power back and up to three weeks before it was fully restored.

While Gov. Calderón and Rosario have defended the decision as a cautious move, most observers cited inexperience and "improvisation" at the utility for what they called a bad decision.

The lack of power is the talk of San Juan as residents wait in long lines for ice, food and other necessities, or try to get some food at a restaurant powered by a generator, which are all jam packed all the time.

Radio talk shows are fielding calls from frustrated residents casting their ire at the administration.

Most say that many more people are in danger now, living without power or water, than they were when Jeanne passed.

There are old people who need electricity for respirators, young single mothers struggling to keep their babies fed and clean without power and water. Everywhere in San Juan, a city full of crazy drivers and no traffic lights, is more dangerous today.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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