ARECIBO, Puerto Rico—Hurricane Irma, the most powerful hurricane to originate from the Atlantic Ocean in recorded history, is expected to hit Puerto Rico in full around 8 p.m. on Wednesday evening. But the commonwealth—and its “vulnerable and fragile” power grid—are already buckling under the strain.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) had already suffered problems as of early Wednesday afternoon, leaving thousands without electricity.
“We have reports that 20 percent of the island is already without electricity,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said at a news conference. (That translates to nearly 300,000 residents without power.)
The power outages don’t just mean that Puerto Ricans will be forced to brave the storm in the dark. For locals, no electricity means no water—the system depends entirely on electricity to supply it. Without cell service or power, folks in need of help won’t be able to call emergency services, let alone civilian heroes.
And if all the power goes out, officials say the island could be without it for four to six months.
The power "is something absolutely necessary, especially due to Puerto Rico's weather,” said the CEO of PREPA, Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez, in a recent interview.
During Hurricane Harvey, Texas’ grid stayed largely online—allowing countless numbers of residents to be rescued. In Hurricane Irma, Puerto Ricans won’t be so lucky.
In Toa Baja, about an hour outside of San Juan, terrified residents caught on camera what electric authorities have been anticipating for months: the system is entirely vulnerable due to the lack of maintenance. In the footage, a power line topples and sparks, then catches fire in the middle of the road when it comes in contact with the damp ground.
President Trump and Governor Rosselló declared emergencies in the commonwealth on Tuesday, and families all over the island have already stocked up on food and water. FEMA has already stationed more than 400 employees on the ground.
“We have to prepare for an event that we have never experienced here,” Rosselló said on Tuesday.
It has been nearly 100 years since the island was hit by a Category 5 storm. More than half of the island's population—3.4 million people—live along its coastline, where the storm-vulnerable shore is a key feature of its tourism industry.
“At first I thought I was safe here, but seeing as it has maintained Category 5, I kept doubting that my house will make it through,” Josefina Cortés told The Daily Beast, as she left her house in Arecibo to find safer ground in one of the 456 public schools on the island, which are set up to serve as storm shelters.
“Since I can't drive, I really had no time to prepare for this,” Cortés said, while one of her neighbors tried to comfort her.
Cortés is one of more than 1,000 evacuees, according to the governor of the island.
Residents who live near the Cordillera Central, Puerto Rico’s largest mountain range, are the most sensitive in these conditions. The municipality of Culebra, a small island located east of Puerto Rico will experience the worst of the storm since it is positioned just 26 miles from the eye.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians who couldn’t reach the Coast Guard turned to bootstrapped startups, Louisiana’s Cajun Navy, and social media to be rescued from their homes. But if the power and cell service drop off in Puerto Rico, that won’t be possible on the island. And the Cajun Navy’s nearly 800 boats, towed across state lines by their pickups, won’t be able to reach Puerto Rico with the more than 1,500 volunteers who operated in Texas last week.
Many of the Houstonians who were saved from their homes during the thick of Harvey flooding used wireless connections to access rescue apps like Zello, which has a baseline of about eight million users but saw their numbers double last week. Users accessed the app via cell-phone data plans and WiFi, where rooms like “Texas Search and Rescue,” “Cajun Navy,” and “Texas Navy” saved countless lives.
Outside of Zello, users posted messages about where they were trapped on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Within hours, volunteers in boats showed up to help.
Puerto Rico won’t be so fortunate. Nearly all of the commonwealth’s essential infrastructure is situated on the coast, including all of its thermoelectric plants, Carmen Guerrero, now the head of the EPA’s Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, told the Associated Press in 2013.
That year, in July, a rain storm wreaked havoc on the island.
“We saw how the metropolitan area became paralyzed,” Guerrero said. “Our infrastructure could not handle that amount of water... Puerto Rico needs to take action now, because otherwise, we're going to be dealing with crises.”