Puerto Rico celebrated a belated, but welcome milestone Tuesday when the American territory’s electric utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), announced it had restored power to 100 percent of those homes and businesses that went dark during Hurricane Maria nearly 11 months ago. The cataclysmic Category 4 storm knocked out electricity to some 1.5 million homes and businesses on an island whose population hovers around 3.3 million people and for the bankrupt state utility company, replacing the existing infrastructure proved to be an existential struggle of its own.
The physical impact of Maria was significant—it was the strongest storm to hit the island in 85 years and resulted in the largest blackout in U.S. history—but the restoration process proved equally damaging. Repairing the electrical grid was politically fraught and rife with mismanagement and alleged corruption, and crawled along such that 10,000 people were still without power as recently as June, some eight months after the storm came and went. During the rebuilding process that left scars of its own, multiple companies that were contracted to help restore the grid came and went, as did leaders of PREPA itself. The current head of the utility has been on the job for just three weeks following a string of successors; last month the entire PREPA board resigned over salaries for new executives, while alleging meddling by elected officials. The result is a significant portion of the multi-billion dollar effort, up to one-quarter of the repairs, will need to be done over to ensure the stability of the island’s power supply, which still is hit by large scale blackouts.
“After spending $3.2 billion, erecting some 52,000 new electrical poles and stringing 6,000 miles of wire from the federal government alone, the Puerto Rico electricity system is not in much better condition now than it was before Maria cut power to every home and business on the island,” according to the New York Times. “Even as some of the last customers are reconnected, many billions of dollars more must still be spent to reconstruct the system and fortify the transmission lines that have been so tattered and poorly maintained that when a mishap occurs, the lights can go out on the entire island.”