Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands start to take the measure of Maria’s destruction

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 of 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. Residents hunkered 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.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Maria had weakened to a Category 3 hurricane. Forecasts call for it to move north and then turn eastward, away from the U.S. mainland, by early next week.

President Trump approved a major disaster declaration for both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Maria first plowed across the island of St. Croix on Tuesday night as a Category 5, then hit Puerto Rico head-on as a Category 4.

The islands are no strangers to hurricanes, but this marked the first time in 85 years that a Category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds of 130 to 156 mph, had made a direct hit on Puerto Rico. And it was the second time in two weeks that the Virgin Islands were hit by a Category 5 hurricane. Irma was the first, on Sept. 6.

Both the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are territories of the United States, and they each own and operate their own electric utilities: the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

In a situation report that it posted Thursday morning, Sept. 21, the Department of Energy said that it “is prepared to respond to impacts from Hurricane Maria and continues to support restoration efforts from both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.”

Emergency responders have been deployed to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and to St. Croix in support of Federal Emergency Management Agency teams, “and responders are prepared to deploy to Puerto Rico as soon as conditions permit,” DOE said in the Thursday morning report.

As of Wednesday afternoon, “nearly all 1.57 million electricity customers in Puerto Rico were reported to be without power,” the Energy Department said — except for facilities that were running on generators.

As of Wednesday afternoon, most of the 25,000 customers on St. Croix were reported to be without power, DOE said, noting that St. Thomas and St. John previously experienced extensive power outages from Hurricane Irma, “with restoration only occurring to critical facilities.”

DOE said it “is coordinating with PREPA, FEMA, and industry on potential mutual aid, if needed.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló established a nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. EDT that took effect Wednesday evening and is to end Saturday morning. A number of exceptions to this curfew were announced, including for state and federal personnel dedicated to recovery activities.

Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority crews halted restoration activities at 5 p.m. EDT on Monday in anticipation of Hurricane Maria. The utility’s administrative and customer service offices were also closed Tuesday and Wednesday in anticipation of the storm, DOE said.

Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority “is expected to begin damage assessments across today, Thursday, Sept. 21, as conditions permit,” DOE said.

In Florida, in the wake of Hurricane Irma, 36,700 customer outages remained, or less than 1 percent of the state’s electricity customers, DOE said, adding, “Most utilities estimated that over 95 percent of customers will be restored by Sept. 22.”

The Florida Municipal Electric Association on Sept. 18 reported that 99 percent of the state’s public power electric utility customers had had their power restored after Irma. In hard-hit Key West, Keys Energy Services said Thursday morning, Sept. 21 that over 23,000 KEYS customers, out of 29,000, had had their power restored in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

The Department of Energy’s situation reports on Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey can be found on the DOE website.