Largest earthquake to hit Puerto Rico in more than 100 years causes severe damage to electricity grid.
The Caribbean island, which is a territory of the United States of America, has been hit by hundreds of quakes and aftershocks already this year.
Most of these incidents have been too weak to be felt, but some have caused substantial damage. On Monday 6 January, a 5.8 magnitude quake hit, followed by an even bigger event measuring 6.4 during the early hours of Tuesday.
This was the biggest earthquake to hit Puerto Rico since October 2018, when a tremor measuring 7.3 unleashed a tsunami that killed 116 people.
Tuesday’s tremor was followed by aftershocks measuring 6.0 and 4.7, with a further magnitude 6.0 earthquake striking on Saturday 11 January.
Based on satellite images before and after the quakes, NASA claims that parts of southern Puerto Rico have moved by approximately 14 cm.
Naturally, these incidents caused heavy damage across many parts of the island, with 500,000 residents without electricity on Wednesday.
The government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) revealed one of the country’s main power plants, the 990 MW capacity Costa Sur Power Station, sustained significant damage during Tuesday’s quake.
José Ortiz, Executive Director of PREPA, admitted the 58-year-old plant, which sits close to the earthquake’s epicentre, had suffered “destruction on a grand scale” amid fears it wouldn’t return to service for up to a year.
Considering Costa Sur generates around a fifth of Puerto Rico’s total electricity, it leaves the island’s grid in a precarious position as hurricane season approaches.
Another source of generation, the privately-owned EcoEléctrica natural gas plant also incurred damage. It needs clearance from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reopen and it’s still unclear how long that process will take.
Further Blow Following Hurricane Maria
Of course, the earthquakes aren’t the first instance in recent years of a natural disaster causing chaos to Puerto Rico’s power grid.
September 2017’s category five Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s infrastructure. Power cuts lasted for a cumulative 3.4 billion hours, making it the second-longest blackout in history.
Nearly $2 billion was spent fixing transmission lines in the aftermath of the hurricane, and it appears these pylons held up pretty well during the earthquakes.
But the problems experienced at Costa Sur and other power plants highlight a network hampered by years of underinvestment and poor decision-making from the beleaguered PREPA.
The power authority, which filed for bankruptcy in 2017, is $9 billion in debt, with the island’s residents bearing the brunt of its profligacy.
The average monthly Puerto Rican electricity bill is $250, which is comparable to the most expensive charge customers on the American mainland face.