As the eye of category 5 Hurricane Irma swept through Puerto Rico’s mainlands on Thursday, locals were devastated with destroyed homes, life- threatening floods, and darkness.
Wind gusts were reported as high as 185 mph for the deadly storm, after causing catastrophic damages and casualties to Caribbean islands Barbuda, St. Bart, and St. Martin. Irma continued its vicious path and left 1 million of Puerto Rico’s residents without power. That shocking number is matched with an even more shocking reality: that the restoration of power in Puerto Rico could be delayed for months.
In an interview with radio station WIPR on Monday, Ricardo Ramos, executive director of the island’s utility company, PREPA, said, “If the outcome of this hurricane reflects the predictions that have been made, we’re looking at areas going three, even four months without electricity.” Despite these possibilities, he assured that his staff would be working tirelessly to restore power.
Ramos was realistic and aware that the island needed to brace itself, but for a number of reasons, Puerto Rico was ill-equipped for dealing with Irma’s destructive aftermath. Jose Rivera told El Nuevo Día, “In the United States, power plants are highly automated and require little human intervention. But here, what we have are old and altered plants, which only our staff are familiar with. We are facing an imminent catastrophe of the electrical system."
According to Vox, PREPA has been dealing with its inability to renovate and update its ancient systems, haunted by a lengthy economic crisis. As a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico’s government largely depended on borrowed money. The decades-long history of loans and a total crushing $9 billion debt has put the island in a position where it cannot borrow more money for reparations.
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Furthermore, Puerto Rico’s deep recession is accompanied by a shortage of skilled workers who would actually carry out the repairs. This is partly because many workers move to the United States looking for better paying jobs or different opportunities, as they can make 27% more money in the states. To make matters worse, in April, 600 of PREPA's workers retired early due to fear that the economic crises could affect the pension program.