New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo personally escorted a large emergency team to Puerto Rico on Friday to help the island start to get its electricity back on and restore communications and other basic services such as water, after the flooding and wreckage caused by the worst hurricane to hit there in close to a century. Included on the trip to the stricken island was a team from the New York Power Authority with transmission system experts.
Except for facilities using generators, no electric power has been working in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria made a direct hit on the island early on Wednesday, Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm, with winds of up to 155 miles per hour.
Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that it could take up to six months to restore power to all of Puerto Rico.
Many Puerto Rican people living on the mainland U.S., including people from the island territory who live in New York state, were very worried about their families because they had not been able to get in touch.
Most areas outside metro San Juan remained unreachable on Thursday, both by road and by telephone, the Miami Herald reported. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 4,000 people in Puerto Rico had been rescued by helicopter, trucks and boats by the National Guard, police, firefighters and municipal officials, the newspaper said.
The New York Times reported Friday that some generators in Puerto Rico were breaking down or running out of gas, prompting at least two hotels to evacuate hundreds of people. Families were waiting to hear when the island’s airport would open, with many planning to fly their children to the U.S. mainland “to temporarily enroll them in schools there until life in Puerto Rico returns to normal,” the newspaper said.
NYPA CEO among those traveling to Puerto Rico
Traveling in a plane donated by JetBlue, the New York contingent, which included engineers, translators, drone pilots, emergency management officials and members of the National Guard, left the morning of Sept. 22 and landed in Puerto Rico at midday. Among them was Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of the New York Power Authority.
At a press conference early Friday morning, Cuomo said he was responding to a “governor to governor” request for help that came in Thursday evening from Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
“He didn’t have to ask because in New York we are family with the Puerto Rican community, and with family you don’t have to ask for help,” Cuomo said Friday morning, standing in front of the plane that was about to depart from JFK International Airport to carry the emergency workers, engineers and others to Puerto Rico.
The governor’s office said the New York Power Authority was sending 10 engineers, planners, technical supervisors and translators along with drones and two drone pilots from the Department of Environmental Conservation to assist with the assessment and reconstruction of Puerto Rico's power grid. The NYPA team included transmission supervisors, generation and transmission engineers, and transmission planners.
"New York is home to more Puerto Ricans than any other state in the country, and our hearts break for our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters as they begin to rebuild after the unimaginable devastation of Hurricane Maria," Cuomo said.
Generators, water, MREs, flashlights, cots
In response to the request from Gov. Rosselló, Gov. Cuomo “immediately made available more than 34,000 bottles of water, 9,600 ready to eat meals, 3,000 canned goods, 500 flashlights, 1,400 cots, 1,400 blankets, 1,400 pillows and 10 10kw generators,” said the news release.
Additionally, Gov. Cuomo said that 60 members of the New York Army National Guard, four Black Hawk helicopters and 50 state police were on standby.
The Sept. 22 flight, on the aircraft donated by JetBlue, is the first flight to depart for San Juan since Hurricane Maria, Cuomo’s office said.
“Puerto Rico has endured a horrific ordeal and we are lucky to have a friend like Gov. Cuomo and New York state, who we share a close bond and deep history with,” said Gov. Rosselló.
Direct hit, with winds up to 155 mph
When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico at 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 20, it was a Category 4 storm — the next to highest level on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale — but it was not far below the highest designation, Category 5. It had winds of 155 miles per hour, and a storm becomes a Category 5 once it has sustained winds of 157 mph or more.
The entire island was without electric power on Wednesday, with residents hunkering down for many hours while Maria took its time slowly passing over Puerto Rico. On Thursday, efforts to rescue people and assess the damage were just beginning, both there and on the hard-hit island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
This month, with more than two full months of this year’s hurricane season still to go, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have been hit by two very powerful hurricanes: Hurricane Irma, which blasted the Virgin Islands, especially St. Thomas and St. John, early in September; and Hurricane Maria, the first Category 4 hurricane to hit Puerto Rico full on since 1932.
Earlier this month, Gov. Cuomo and a state assessment team toured damaged areas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to identify how New York could help with the recovery in those islands.
In those islands, Irma had knocked out electric service to most of St. Thomas and virtually all of St. John, but largely spared St. Croix. But Maria had the force of a Category 5 storm when it hit St. Croix squarely -- so now, the electric infrastructure of all three islands is in very poor shape.
Conditions in the Virgin Islands were reported to be very bad, with no electricity, no water, food shortages, and lawlessness. A Virgin Islands lineman was electrocuted earlier this month during restoration work after Hurricane Irma.
Dam reported to be failing; drones to help assess damage
In Puerto Rico, Maria deluged the island with more than two feet of rain over a 24-hour period, causing streams and rivers to rise and overflow their banks.
The Associated Press reported Friday afternoon that the National Weather Service had said the Guajataca Dam in northwestern Puerto Rico was failing, causing flash flooding downstream.
Dam operators reported at 2:10 p.m. on Sept. 22 that the dam at the northern end of Lake Guajataca was failing. Buses were evacuating people from the area as fast as they could, with the government calling the situation "extremely dangerous," the AP report said.
Cuomo’s office said the mission of the team from NYPA, assisted by the drones and drone pilots from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, would be to help the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to:
- Conduct a comprehensive damage assessment of their generation, transmission and distribution system;
- Prioritize the restoration and rebuilding work; and
- Facilitate coordination between PREPA and the U.S. Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council comprised of the national utility trade organizations, such as the American Public Power Association, Edison Electric Institute, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and relevant federal agencies, such as Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Energy and Department of Homeland Security, to coordinate mutual assistance resources to be deployed to Puerto Rico after a comprehensive damage assessment has been conducted.
"Hurricane Maria has left a trail of catastrophic damage across Puerto Rico that is now only fully coming into view,” said U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y., the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress. “For the people on the island, help is now coming,” she said.
The congresswoman said that Gov. Cuomo and the state of New York were “stepping up to the plate in a big way” by bringing personnel and supplies.
“With the airport reopening, time is of the essence and this assistance is absolutely critical to save lives,” said Velázquez.