As Floridians prepare for the landfall of Hurricane Irma, the Category 5 storm has been battering the Caribbean. The center of the storm passed within 90 miles of San Juan, Puerto Rico around 2 p.m. Wednesday according to the National Hurricane Center.
The combination of the devastation of Irma, promising up to twenty inches of rainfall and wind speeds of 185 miles an hour, and the projected impact of Tropical Storm Jose have threatened the island with four to six months of blackout, according to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
While Ricardo Ramos, PREPA’s director, told local radio listeners on Notiuno 630 AM that some parts of the island may have power as soon as next week, many homes and communities would expect much longer outages.
The government intends to open 456 shelters capable of housing more than 62,000 people and a state of emergency has been declared in the U.S. territory to deal with the record storm.
But not all of the power supply problem is caused by nature — a fair portion has been caused by neglect. The utility’s infrastructure has degraded seriously over the past decade to the point that Puerto Rico experienced an island-wide blackout last year.
PREPA has been officially in crisis since 2014 when it attempted, and failed, to file for bankruptcy to deal with $9 billion in debts. The local legislature’s attempt to work around Chapter 9 provisions and grant bankruptcy relief to PREPA was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.
A November 2016 report found that PREPA “appears to be running on fumes, and…desperately requires an infusion of capital—monetary, human, and intellectual—to restore a functional utility.”
While PREPA struggles with aging infrastructure and financial stresses, the struggle against Irma, the strongest Atlantic storm on record, compound the provider’s problems.
Irma is expected to hit much of Florida over the weekend and into next week
Katelyn Kivel is a journalist and political scientist from Kalamazoo, Michigan who has specialized in law, policy and government reporting over the course of her career. Follow her on Twitter @katelynkivel.