The Big Blackout Deserves A Probe

by John Marino

September 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Everybody in Puerto Rico, it seems, with the possible exception of Gov. Calderón, supports an independent investigation of the decisions taken by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority during the passing of Tropical Storm Jeanne.

The governor has been emphatic that the decision taken by Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Director Héctor Rosario to shut down the island’s power grid as the storm hit the island was the most prudent course of action to take.

That may well be the case, but there is a body of evidence suggesting that leaving the power turned on would have been a better move. And Puerto Rico, which is always a potential target during hurricane season, needs to answer how best to manage its electrical system in future storms.

The Engineers and Surveyors Association sent a letter to Calderón Monday, asking to launch an independent analysis of the what happened at PREPA during Tropical Storm Jeanne.

She has yet to publicly answer the group, but she has said that all public documents in her administration are open for review.

Rosario has promised to meet with the group, and he has launched his own internal probe, which he pledges to make public after it is completed in a month or so.

An independent probe is needed to ensure a sound public policy can be put in place when the next storm threatens the island.

Both Rosario and Calderón have defended the decision to shut off the lights, saying that the move helped protect the system and ensured the safety of workers and residents, who could have stumbled upon downed lines in the storm’s aftermath.

And it’s true that there were no electrocutions of workers or residents during or after the storm, but the decision to shut off lights provided dangers of other kinds, as residents struggled without light for as long as a week.

Two people died and over a dozen were treated in hospital emergency rooms for inhaling fumes from home generators during the big black out. Another resident died from smoke inhalation in a fire that was probably caused by the loss of power. And there were countless health considerations as thousands of elderly and young children were forced to live without power or water for days on end.

Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló this week said shutting off power was contrary to everything he had been told while governor. "I was told that it was better to keep the system running because if it shuts down due to the storm, the system will identify where the damage was made."

While his comments appeared measured, Calderón, when questioned about them, said she would not dignify them with a response.

The call for a probe is not politics as usual. It comes from a deeply held feeling by many residents of different political backgrounds that they were forced to endure several days without power and water not because of a natural disaster, but by government mishandling of an emergency situation.

That’s especially the case in metropolitan San Juan, where damage was very light, but residents living in the shadow of the international airport were left without power for six days.

While much of Puerto Rico had to wait until Sunday or Monday to get back lights, St. Croix restored 90 percent of its power a day after the storm. The neighboring island was also hit by the brunt of Jeanne, but had shut down power only in specific areas where problems were noticed.

During the days of darkness in Puerto Rico, local newspapers talked extensively to stateside utilities and environmental engineering experts to try to compare how other jurisdictions handled the approach of hurricanes and tropical storms.

The consensus: never turn the power off. One paper by industry experts said shutting off power is actually more dangerous because it robs residents of precious preparation time.

"In a storm, some areas go out and others don’t. Why would you want to take them all down," Florida Power and Light spokeswoman Kathy Scott asked the San Juan STAR.

It’s a question that needs answering.

Rosario has said that the utility planned on slowly reducing power, but decided to shut down the system all at once when an "imbalance" was discovered in the system between generating output on the south coast and energy demand on the north coast. The concern was the potential damage to two large transmission lines taking power from the south to the north.

An independent probe by experts could either justify the decision or point to a better alternative, which in turn could be used to map out future protocols the utility could rely on during the next storm.

Puerto Rico is intensely political. The passing of Jeanne will undoubtedly have political ramifications. Many will view the decision to shut off the lights as drastic and wrong-headed. They will also look at the slow release of information during the emergency as another indication of the improvisation of the Calderón administration.

But calls for a probe of PREPA’s actions go beyond politics. The governor should embrace an independent probe, rather than stubbornly defend her utility directors’ decision against mounting evidence to the contrary.

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

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback