SAN JUAN, P.R. — Two days after Hurricane Maria flattened this island of 3.5 million people, knocking out all its power and much of its water, the rebuilding of the services and structures needed for people to resume some semblance of ordinary life was looking more complicated by the day.
All or part of three towns in the northwestern part of the island — Isabela, San Sebastián and Quebradillas — were being evacuated Friday because of fears about structural damage to the nearby Guajataca Dam. Close to 70,000 people could be affected if the 90-year-old dam, which is 120-feet high and can hold about 11 billion gallons of water, collapsed, said Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló.
And with everyone from the governor of Puerto Rico to the mayor of San Juan predicting that it could take four to six months to resume electrical service, people were contemplating empty refrigerators, campfire cooking, bathing in their own sweat and perhaps wrangling for fresh water on an island accustomed to hard times but nothing like what the future may bring.
“It’s been hard to see infrastructure deteriorate in Puerto Rico, but it has been harder to meet citizens who have lost it all,” Governor Rosselló said.
The most immediate danger was from the dam, which suffered structural damage. And finding gasoline was already a big problem. Lines for ice and gas stretched for blocks. Generators needed diesel or regular gas to work, and supplies at gas stations were quickly dwindling.“People will start going nuts pretty soon,” said Miguel A. Soto-Class, president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan research organization. “I don’t think it will be ‘Mad Max,’ but people will be looking for diesel and gasoline, more than water even.”
The water supply was also becoming a problem. Even in San Juan, people need electricity to access water, and water is also critical to running some air-conditioning systems. At Centro Medico, a major hospital outside San Juan in Río Piedras, the emergency unit was treating patients but had no air-conditioning, said Dr. Johnny Rullán, a physician.
But the biggest long-term obstacle was the prospect of months without power.
Puerto Ricans are the first to say they can improvise — resolver — when a drought dries them up or a terrible storm knocks them down. But the idea of grappling long term without power hung like a pall over the island.
“This is really affecting me,” said Nina Rodriguez, a human resources manager in San Juan. “I have four children and the youngest is 6 months old. We are preparing for six months, maybe even a year without power.”
She added: “All the infrastructure has collapsed. Everything we had before the hurricane is beyond reach.”
While few places could withstand a Category 4 hurricane without extensive damage to power grids, Puerto Rico’s government-owned power company was particularly vulnerable because of a history of neglect, mismanagement, out-of-control debt and decrepit infrastructure, experts said. A monopoly by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or Prepa, was reviled by island residents long before Hurricane Maria shut it down.
“Our plants look like the cars in Cuba,” said Eduardo Bhatia, a Puerto Rican senator. They could produce power before the hurricane, but not efficiently and not cheaply.
Even though Hurricane Irma spared Puerto Rico, brushing it lightly as it whirled west two weeks ago, almost 70 percent of the island lost power. Some residents were still waiting for electricity when Hurricane Maria hit the island.
Eugenio Toro and his wife Cristina Bernal lost power Sept. 6. As a result, they felt ill prepared for Hurricane Maria. “We couldn’t freeze things,” Mr. Toro said. “We never got the light back. We did go buy a generator but there is little gas and we can only use it a few hours a day.”
So much of the damage still needs to be assessed that it is possible the power situation may turn out to be less dire than feared. On Friday, Prepa’s chief executive, Ricardo Ramos, said on CNBC that he was hopeful that the power plants — as opposed to the power lines, pylons, substations and transformers — may be intact.
In a Puerto Rican Village: ‘The Wind Came and Took Everything’
“We’ve lost probably 80 percent of the transmission and distribution infrastructure,” he said, adding that crews had completed only about a third of an island-wide survey of the damage and would have more information in two days.
He also said that important buildings on the island, including Centro Medico and a convention center now being used by emergency workers, would have their power back in two or three days.
Mr. Ramos said he shortened estimates for how long power would be out after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York arrived Friday with teams to help restore electricity. “We expect three to four months at most,” for the whole island, he said.
Getting power back to Puerto Rico will be daunting and expensive. Transformers, poles and power lines snake from coastal areas across hard-to-access mountains. In some cases, the poles have to be maneuvered in place with helicopters.
And yet it gets worse. Puerto Rico is an island, which means the tons of much-needed supplies — trucks, poles, cables, tools, spare parts, helicopters — must be shipped into Caribbean ports, making the process infinitely more cumbersome. Trained electrical workers by the hundreds will also have to be flown into Puerto Rico, where they will have to find places to stay, not an uncomplicated task.
So every relief delivery can be a major event.
Mr. Cuomo and a delegation from New York arrived Friday morning with supplies that included more than 34,000 bottles of water, 500 flashlights, 1,400 cots and blankets and, perhaps most important, 10 generators.
Mr. Soto-Class said Prepa has been plagued by bungling and more recently a debt it cannot pay, a shortage of cash, and layoffs. Some of its infrastructure dates back to the 1970s, or earlier.
“When the electric power authority had the money, they mismanaged it and didn’t invest,” he said. “Now there is less money to run the authority with. This compounds it all, one on top of the other.”
By some measures, the authority, formed during the Great Depression, is the largest public electric utility in the United States, with more than 1.5 million customers. Most of the electricity it produces is generated by burning fuel oil — a dirty, outmoded source. It is virtually the last power company producing electricity that way. Hearings in the Puerto Rican Senate revealed that the authority bought sludge and then billed Puerto Rico’s unsuspecting ratepayers as if they had bought high-grade oil.
The lack of electricity also affects the water supply in certain areas. Some towns need electricity to get their water pumped in.
For now, generators are the saving grace for the lucky few who have them to crank up their refrigerator and a few fans. Some restaurants, hotels and many hospitals have operating generators. But the vast majority of Puerto Ricans on the impoverished island cannot afford them.
For older residents, the lack of power could be dangerous.
Ermerita Rosa Perez, 83, sat on her porch in San Juan praying the rosary and worrying not just about comfort but about survival.
“Four to six months without electricity?! Oh no, no, no, no, we will die,” Ms. Rosa said. “Us old people can’t make it that long. Just today, I was looking at this flooded mess and I was thinking of mopping. I said, ‘No, I can’t. I need to rest.’ I will take a cold water bath — which I’m not supposed to do, because I have arthritis — and rest.”
She worried about her health. “I am diabetic. I have high blood pressure. It’s so hot I can’t take it,” she said. “I’m an old lady, hauling pots to my carport to cook on a gas stove? It’s too much. So I sit here on my porch, trying to catch a breeze, praying to God to bring things back to normal.”
Her son, Hilberto Caban, was less panicked. He said the authorities were probably exaggerating how long the lights would be out.
“That way if it takes three weeks or a month, we’ll all say, ‘Great! Look how hard they worked!” he said.