The vulnerabilities we share

As we were coping with a third weekend of deep freeze, my inner optimist searched for things to be grateful for. First, I am grateful that we’ve had a good share of brilliant sunshine on many of these frigid days, which lifts the mood if not the thermometer. I am also hoping that the sustained cold may help control some of our destructive invasive bugs, such as the emerald ash borer and hemlock wooly adelgid, which have flourished in our milder recent winters. There is even some evidence that deer ticks are slowed down (though not killed off) by prolonged periods of below freezing temperatures.

I always worry about power outages, and sure enough the lights went out just after dark on New Year’s Eve. It lasted about two hours, long enough to cause anxiety about our more vulnerable neighbors, and to remind me how fragile we all feel when communications systems are down. Our longest power outage, after Superstorm Sandy, lasted more than 10 days, which seemed like an eternity. Insult compounded injury when we called our electric utility for an update and got a recorded message saying our power had been restored—a communications breakdown that prolonged our misery.

Ten days is nothing considering the fact that many residents of Puerto Rico have been without power for more than three months, a situation that will undoubtedly raise the ultimate death toll associated with Hurricane Maria. The power distribution system remains devastated, and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) estimates that 80,000 rural residents of Puerto Rico may not have electricity until the end of May. The outage management system, which tells the utility how many customers are without service, was knocked out by the storm, so it’s even hard to calculate exactly how many people are still without electricity. Recent reports that 65% of power had been restored referred to generation capacity, not the number of households receiving power. An ACE report issued just before Christmas highlighted the magnitude of the challenge: 50,000 homes still need temporary roofs; more than 50,000 power poles must be repaired or replaced along with 18,900 miles of cable and 500 towers. There are severe challenges to the supply chain, from manufacture to shipping and delivery of such a vast amount of electrical equipment.

What’s happening now in Puerto Rico is restoration of services on an emergency basis, not the much deeper process of bringing the island’s grid into the 21st century. The flip side of a disaster like Hurricane Maria is the opportunity to make things better than they were before. Resilience, the ability to bounce back from the next storm, can be baked into the cake in the form of upgraded technology and grid design. Whether or not we find the resources and will to do that for our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico will bode well or ill for us all, since the grid is fraying at the edges all across the U.S., endangering lives, property and economic progress.


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