SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — More than a million customers were still without power in Puerto Rico on Thursday after a fire at a major power plant caused the worst outage of the year in the United States.
Officials have been forced to close schools and government offices.
The outage also deprived some 160,000 customers of running water and caused congestion on the island of 3.2 million people, where the roar of generators and the smell of diesel fuel filled the air. Those who can’t afford a generator and have to take refrigerated medications like insulin for diabetes worried about how long the outage would last.
Local residents looking for fuel for their generators formed long lines in front of the gas stations. Others tried to charge their phones in stores, scenes reminiscent of those seen after Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 monster that devastated the island in 2017.
Leaders in at least one city have been handing out groceries to hundreds of seniors, as well as ice cream to those who need to keep their medications cool.
Luma, the company that handled power transmission and distribution on the island last year, said the outage may have been caused by a faulty circuit breaker at Costa Power Plant on Wednesday — one of Puerto Rico’s four major power plants.
“The system is slowly recovering,” said Kevin Acevedo, Luma’s vice president, adding that the company hopes repairs will be completed within 24 hours. The people of Puerto Rico need to understand that the system is old. Restoring the Puerto Rico system is a complex and delicate process.”
Luma said the exact cause of the outage is not known.
“It will require a thorough investigation,” Mr Acevedo said, before ensuring the equipment whose failure caused the fire was well maintained.
The outage comes two months ahead of the Atlantic hurricane season, and many are concerned about the strength and reliability of Puerto Rico’s power grid.
“Yes, the system is fragile, nobody says otherwise, but we are ready,” Mr Acevedo said.
The police were deployed at important intersections on Thursday to relieve traffic. Health officials visited hospitals to make sure generators were running.
The collapse has irritated even more Puerto Ricans who are already reeling from the situation. The island’s electrical system was destroyed by Maria in 2017 and repairs have been made since then, but rebuilding has yet to begin.
Officials blame aging and poorly maintained infrastructure for the recurring outages.
The Costa Sur power plant was also damaged by a series of powerful earthquakes that shook the south of the island.