SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Power was slowly being restored in Puerto Rico on Thursday, nearly 24 hours after a blackout swept across the island when a fire at a power plant set off a cascade of problems that knocked out the aging utility grid.
Some 200,000 customers had electricity back by early Thursday afternoon, and officials said that number could reach a half million in the next several hours. But it will be Friday before nearly all of the power company’s 1.5 million customers are reconnected, said Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who declared a state of emergency.
He said he understood people’s frustrations and the need to blame someone for the blackout, which plunged the U.S. territory’s 3.5 million inhabitants into darkness amid a decade-long economic crisis that has worn Puerto Ricans down.
“We all want the system to be back online,” Garcia said. “Let’s hold someone responsible for this. Blame me. I’ll take the blame. What’s another stripe on the tiger?”
Frustration mounted Thursday among Puerto Ricans, most of whom don’t have generators and were forced them to spend Wednesday night in darkness and without air conditioning in the tropical heat. They awoke to find most businesses and public offices closed, and officials saying it could be 24 hours before power would be fully restored.
“Puerto Rico is not prepared for something like this,” said Celestino Ayala Santiago, who slept in his car so he could have some air conditioning to escape the heat.
At least one person died overnight from exposure to carbon monoxide after setting up a personal generator, and a 76-year-old man was taken to the hospital in good condition after spending the night trapped in an elevator at a government building, Garcia said.
Crews were connecting gas turbines at larger power plants to help restore power, but they often had to repeat the process because demand overpowered the system, officials said.
Localized power outages are common in Puerto Rico, which has an outdated energy infrastructure, but widespread failures such as this generally have happened only with tropical storms. “This is an apocalypse,” Jose Tavela said as he ate breakfast at a small cafe in the capital that had a generator.
Utility officials said they were trying to determine what caused the fire Wednesday afternoon at the Aguirre power plant in the southern town of Salinas and triggered the larger outage.
The fire apparently knocked out two transmission lines that serve the broader grid, which tripped circuit breakers that automatically shut down the flow of power as a preventive measure, said Yohari Molina, a spokeswoman for the Electric Power Authority.
Garcia said a switch where the fire occurred had been properly maintained, rejecting suggestions the outage stemmed from maintenance problems that have plagued the utility for years, largely a result of the island’s deep economic and fiscal crisis.
He warned that restoring power would be a slow process. “Given that the system is so old, numerous setbacks could occur,” he said. “The system is not designed to withstand a failure of this magnitude.”
As soon as the power failed, roads that are clogged with traffic on a normal day were plunged into chaos as streetlights went out. Businesses closed, long lines formed at gas stations and rooms quickly filled at hotels with generators. Many Puerto Ricans dragged mattresses out to balconies and porches to spend the night outside, doing what they could to ward off mosquitoes in the still air.
“To see everything blacked out, my God,” said Virginia Davila, a nurse’s assistant who lives on the 11th floor of an apartment building in San Juan.
Many Puerto Ricans expressed doubts that power would be restored quickly, saying the economic slump has affected basic government services. Hundreds of people took to social media to criticize the power utility, many noting that they pay bills on average twice that of the U.S. mainland.
It was unclear how much damage the fire caused or where the power company would obtain the money to repair or buy new equipment. The utility is struggling with a $9 billion debt that it hopes to restructure as it faces numerous corruption allegations. Company officials have said they are seeking revenue to update outdated equipment.
Authorities said Wednesday’s outage caused 15 fires across Puerto Rico as a result of malfunctioning generators, including at the upscale Vanderbilt Hotel in the popular tourist area of Condado and at the mayor’s office in the northern coastal town of Catano. All those fires were extinguished and no one was injured, officials said.