Internet and cellphone service can’t be fully restored without a steady flow of electricity to individual cell towers. The pumps, filtration systems, and other equipment used to treat sewage and provide clean drinking water also can’t function without power. Right now, those plants aren’t receiving much of it.
…the lack of electricity is a literal life-and-death issue — and one that may wind up killing more Puerto Ricans than the storm itself. The island’s government says 48 people died because of the hurricane, but my colleagues Eliza Barclay and Alexia Fernández Campbell estimate that the real death toll from the storm is probably well into the hundreds.
That number could spike even higher if the blackouts continue because the island needs electricity to operate its water and sewage systems; if the grid remains offline, huge numbers of Puerto Ricans will be at real risk of dying from heatstroke, dehydration, or exposure to contaminated water.
…The reasons have to do with geography and money. Puerto Rico’s biggest power generators are on the south of the island, but most of its inhabitants live on the north side, primarily in San Juan. There are four high-capacity transmission lines that carry power from the south to the north, and they pass through the center part of the island, the region Marin calls home. The problem is that central Puerto Rico is mountainous, full of huge swaths of thick forest, and mainly reachable only by driving on terrifyingly narrow dirt roads.
…For now, the military and civilian officials working to pull Puerto Rico back from the brink are focused on bringing powerful generators to the island. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the three-star Army general leading US military relief efforts in Puerto Rico, says civilian personnel are surveying hospitals, water plants, and sewage treatment facilities to find out which facilities have generators that are already working, which have ones in of need repair, and which don’t have any at all.
“If they don’t have a generator, do they need one, and can we bring one in?” he tells me. “And when we talk generators, I’m not talking your little Honda one. I’m talking about massive generators, like the size of a semi-truck.”
FEMA has already installed 100 generators at individual hospitals, sewage treatment plants, and water pumping facilities. It plans to bring in up to 400 more, according to officials on the ground here.
Generators are a short-term fix, however; a permanent solution will take far longer.
…The [wind] turbines are in perfect working order and could be a vital source of energy for the power-starved island. Except that they can’t actually be turned on without a small amount of electricity from the grid — which, of course, isn’t currently capable of providing it.
When the grid eventually comes back online, the wind farm will be able to provide power to about 35,000 homes. Until then, the blades aren’t turning.
…The medical center, though, is rapidly changing its normal ways of doing business in order to adapt to the new reality on the ground. Rodríguez tells me that many local residents have lost their homes and are living in large communal shelters. They may not know the medical center is open; even if they do, they often have no way of getting here.
In response, Rodríguez is sending doctors and nurses to the shelters, which are already seeing periodic outbreaks of infectious diseases such as conjunctivitis and parasite-borne skin diseases like scabies. That’s a new approach for the medical center, but Rodríguez feels like she’d be letting down her community if she didn’t experiment with alternative methods of delivering care. “This is our new normal,” she says.