Hurricane Maria caused the worst blackout in U.S. history

October 26, 2017, 7:00am

Hurricane Maria left inhabitants of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with dire shortages of aid, water, and food. But that’s just the start of the damage: According to a new analysis, it also officially caused the biggest blackout in U.S. history, and the situation is poised to get even worse.

A study from the research firm Rhodium Group used Department of Energy data to examine the number of customer-hours of service lost in the blackouts — basically, the number of hours of power lost multiplied by the number of customers who lost it — and Maria blows its competition out of the water.

According to their estimates, the storm disrupted roughly 1.25 billion hours of electric service, almost 200 million more than the second-biggest blackout. And the total disruption could reach 2 billion hours before repairs are complete.

Trevor Houser, one of the study’s authors, said this blackout was much more severe than others for a number of reasons, some avoidable and others not. Puerto Rico lies in an area with regular hurricanes, but federal authorities weren’t prepared for the storm, which rolled straight across the island’s already frail electric grid.

“When Irma hit Florida, at the peak, 6 million customers lost power. That’s more than in Puerto Rico, but service was restored pretty quickly. That’s in part because there were other parts of Florida that weren’t damaged. You could bring in crews and equipment more quickly,” Houser said. “Maria went right across the middle of Puerto Rico, so there was no place to hide. Every part of the island got hammered. That makes the restoration process much harder.“

As it stands, 75 percent of Puerto Rico residents still lack power.

Congress passed a $36.5 billion disaster relief package Tuesday that includes funds for the affected Caribbean territories, but many have criticized the Trump administration’s response to the crisis, describing tone-deaf antics and poor management.

The president, meanwhile, told reporters last week, “I would give myself a 10” out of 10, when it came to evaluating his administration’s response in Puerto Rico. “We have provided so much, so fast.”

Massive outages after hurricanes aren’t new in the U.S., though. According to the sutdy, three of the top 10 biggest blackouts in U.S. history were in Puerto Rico after hurricanes, and nine of the top 10 followed hurricanes.

“The primary threat to electric reliability in the U.S. is extreme weather,” Houser said, adding that climate change will further exacerbate the problem by strengthening storms in the region. Even before Maria, he said, the island’s aging power authority was “running on fumes,” suffering from layoffs, little oversight, and risky debt borrowing, according to a 2016 outside audit.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is aiming to restore power for half of customers by Nov. 15 and 95 percent by Dec. 15, but his plans to do so have raised eyebrows. Rather than opting to use “mutual aid” agreements with other power utilities, as is common after natural disasters, Puerto Rico awarded Whitefish Energy, a small, two-year-old Montana firm that had two full-time employees when Maria hit, a $300 million contract to rebuild much of the island’s grid. And even that agreement seems tenuous — on Wednesday, the company threatened to walk from the contract after San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz criticized them on Twitter.