How did Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 storm, knock out Puerto Rico’s power?

A few media-following friends in the Northeast have been checking in, concerned that Hurricane Fiona, which knocked out power in Puerto Rico, is also trashing our neighborhood. They are reassured to learn that Puerto Rico is 1,000 miles from Palm Beach County, but it has made me wonder… given that (1) Fiona is only a Category 1 storm, (2) Puerto Rico can expect something similar every year or two (history), and (3) the power grid in Puerto Rico was recently rebuilt to the latest standards (after the 2017 Category 5 Hurricane Irma), why were the reported 85 mph winds enough to take the system out?

Is it simply impossible to make above-ground lines robust enough to handle 85 mph winds? Is the problem that trees will inevitably come down and break the lines even if the lines wouldn’t have been blown down? (But a newly engineered grid should be able to handle quite a few individual tree impacts because the power would be routed around the cut line.)

From state-sponsored NPR in 2021:

It’s been four years since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s electric power grid. Yet even after billions of dollars were allocated by the federal government to repair it, the island’s energy infrastructure is still in terrible shape. Blackouts continued this summer as the two entities responsible for operating the grid pointed fingers at each other over who is to blame. One of those two entities is Luma, a private company that was awarded a contract last year to distribute electricity around the island. The other is the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, which used to be in charge of the whole system and now continues to operate the power plants.

The restoration process is very bureaucratic because you have Luma going through FEMA’s process, going through the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau’s process. And you also have Luma going through federal process and going through Puerto Rican process. And you know what? There’s not a single work already done with reconstruction funds. They’re still planning and designing. So this will take a lot of years before we see something better.

An IEEE article from 2018 doesn’t explain any of the engineering or technical details:

This past December, I traveled to Puerto Rico to report on this massive undertaking. I found contradictions everywhere I went. I saw utility workers fanned out across the island, yet progress remained excruciatingly slow. I met rank-and-file PREPA employees working flat out to restore power, yet each day brought a new report of fumbles at the utility’s top levels. And I heard many smart and exciting ideas for how to build a modern, resilient grid in Puerto Rico, even as the urgent need to restore power meant resurrecting the vulnerable existing system.

KSUA to TJSJ (skyvector):

Are we going to see “I stand with Puerto Rico” Facebook profile images? Or will people stick with this one:

11 thoughts on “How did Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 storm, knock out Puerto Rico’s power?

  1. Because as the IEEE report tiptoes around, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldnt put the grid back together again in five years, in a place 1/3rd the size of Massachusetts. The sure could reassemble the the bureaucracy, though!

    I wonder if the whole Dominican Republic will blink out?

    Pre-storm reports sounded particularly schizo, alternating between assurances that everyone was prepared, no problemo, but disaster was nevertheless imminent. So bets were being hedged.

    What are the wealthy US investors doing for juice? I guess they’ve spent part of their tax savings on backup generators.

    Kwak Bros:

    • Alex: So far the Dominican Republic, which was reportedly hit by stronger winds, seems to have suffered some mudslides and perhaps some local power issues.

  2. It’s not just Puerto Rico. We have the same in Britain, eg S Wales 15 miles from a major city, generally without the benefit of hurricanes or the P Rico level of bureaucratic pile-up.

    Talking to our distribution team, I inferred that, although the core distribution network is redundantly configured, the effect is limited:
    * there are many mature trees that might fall on overhead power lines
    * no-one will pay for more redundancy of overhead lines that will “rarely” be needed
    * some combination of more numerous or more threatening trees and windier storms has broken the definition of “rarely”
    * no-one will pay for burying the cables, where apparently cooling can become an issue, except in particularly scenic areas
    * the single line that comes down your street is very likely to be close to a threatening tree or limb.

    I can’t believe that this problem has been solved in the rural continental US with its much larger distances, unless trees have been eliminated. Have things moved on since I learned about the US power network (Wichita, anyway) from Glenn Campbell, or do you guys in the sticks still have to have generators?

    • Out here in Pennsyltucky, you really need a generator. Whenever we have a major enough outage to merit bringing in crews from other parts of the country, it’s interesting to talk to the workers about the grid setup around here. They are generally not complimentary. But the local power company seems to like things as they are. I guess they figure it’s more profitable to keep crews around for frequent outages then it would be to invest in a more resilient local grid and not have to pay all those crews. We’ll know when the cost of labor has gone high enough to change that calculation, but we are not there yet.

    • In my Deplorable Zone of MA, the power used to go out here on a quasi-random basis at least two to three times a week. During major storms we lost juice for a day or so. During one particularly nasty early-season snowfall a few years ago, while the leaves were still on the trees, we lost power for a week in freezing temperatures and I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out what people were doing for toiletry in their homes. The local convenience store turned itself into an ad-hoc generator sales outlet.

      Why? Because the local Grid Operator had decided that people who live in Deplorable Land should live Deplorable Lives, and despite the constant presence of utility trucks (where the crews mostly sat all day long and decided what kind of grinders to eat for lunch so they could work overtime) the entire system here was a dilapidated throwback to the early 20th Century.

      I had a relatively expensive machine that was badly damaged one day because of the terrible reliability of the grid, and I got tired of defecating into plastic bags. So I organized a little campaign of like-minded individuals and penned a letter to all our State Reps. and our State Senator and the Governor. We also CC:d all the local newspapers and the Boston Globe.

      The gist of it was: “Look, fellas. We know we really don’t live in what you think of as Massachusetts. But this is still America. We’re not living in the middle of Siberia, despite your efforts to pretend we do, and we’re not yet living in Venezuela. We also pay the same electricity rates that anyone else in this Commonwealth does. For that money we have quite possibly the most unreliable grid power in this state. We’d appreciate some action on this matter.”

      Within six months the power was much more reliable. Why? The crews in the trucks spent some overtime actually pruning tree limbs. They knocked down a few other trees that were old and rotted out but still precariously ready to fall over. They took down most of the oldest lines and installed new ones.

      In other words, we organized a peaceful protest but got the politicians on the hook, along with the power company and made sure the newspapers knew about it. It was a bipartisan effort.
      The power still is not 100% reliable, occasionally a vacationer in their BMW or Range Rover gets drunk on their way home and smacks into a utility pole, but it’s much better than it used to be.

      Utility companies have perverse incentives not to maintain their infrastructure but overpay their remaining workers. Politicians are just perverse – all the time – and do nothing but talk about how someone else caused the problem but things are getting better all the time.

    • @ /df: I should add that one of my friends during that time was a guy in my local Rod and Gun Club who had done a lot of work as a lineman. He told me that companies were facing a shortage of men who wanted to work with equipment that could sometimes be dangerous. He also had a side job installing solar panels. His main complaint was that utility companies couldn’t hire enough men to do these sometimes-dangerous jobs unless they were being paid off-the-charts.

      “Everybody wants to sit in front of a computer. There aren’t enough guys who want to *work.*” I sat there with him in an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds, but he’s correct.
      And why would they? Men like this are pissed on by every Woke idiot in this country. They get the message, they understand it: “F*** you.”

  3. I hate to say it out loud but: If you didn’t get a reliable power grid before 1970, you’re unlikely to get one now. We just suck at big projects. (And if you lose it, you’ll never get it back, just like road infrastructure) Cost disease and other things just make it impossible.

  4. After Hurricane Michael (Cat 5, 10/10/18, some dates you don’t forget) a MAJOR percentage of the power grid, mostly wooden poles, was literally down, as in on the ground. The power companies imported 7,500 linemen and stood the whole thing (30-40 mile swath) back up in about 5 weeks, pretty much identical to before. Apparently they have no plans for opportunistic upgrades, just big financial reserves for spares and overtime. Exception: Tyndall AFB, still being rebuilt, is getting lots of upgrades, including underground. Cost in $Billions, reopens maybe 2023.

    The young engineer who came to approve relocating our service line told a story: At a status meeting after the winds died, a manager asked for a “pole report”; a staffer speaking for a sizable zone reported “We have 3 or 4.” Manager “3 or 4 down?” – “No, 3 or 4 UP!”

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