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Surviving a Year-Long Blackout: Lessons from Puerto Rico & the USVI

August 20, 2020 0 comments

The recent power grid collapse in Texas wasn't just a one-time event. It was a warning: our system of power delivery is more vulnerable than most people know.

A single major disaster—a cyber attack, a solar flare, or a few big hurricanes all hitting in a row—could set off a chain of dominoes that shut down power through massive regions of the country for months or more.

And the worst part? As Ted Koppel puts it (who wrote an entire book on subject) "The government isn't doing much to deal with the consequences."

Impossible? More Like Inevitable.

If you think a months or year-long power outage is impossible, we've already seen it play out in real time.

Back in 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by two major hurricanes that left much of the population in a total blackout for almost a solid year. Cell phones, hospitals, and water purification plants all went out for months.

It happened. And will happen again—it's a matter of "if," not when.

Puerto Rico: A Great Case Study for Those Paying Attention

On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma brought catastrophic damage to the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. According to FEMA, “Irma took down power grids and communications in Culebra, St. Thomas, St. John and portions of eastern Puerto Rico, impacting over 1 million people. The St. Thomas hospital and St. John clinic were destroyed.”

Then, 12 days later, Hurricane Maria, a second category five hurricane, followed the same path bringing even more devastation to the areas. FEMA reports, “Maria damaged or destroyed 70% of the buildings on St. Croix, including schools and the island’s only hospital. The remaining power grid and communications networks in the USVI went down. […] Power and communications were knocked out across Puerto Rico, leaving over 3.5 million residents in the dark.”

But it was the aftermath of the hurricanes that was the worst. In addition to being plunged into complete darkness, cellular service was knocked out, making it difficult for family members to communicate and find one another. It took weeks for family members to reunite. Plus, the outside world had little to no information about what was happening on the islands.

According to the USVI Hurricane Recovery and Resilience Task Force Report, “By the time Maria had passed, U.S. Virgin Islander lives had been lost, and many of the Territory’s 110,000 residents were without power, phones, food or running water. Ports and airports were closed for weeks. All three major hospitals and critical care centers across the territory were damaged and patients flown to Puerto Rico after Irma had to again be moved[...] to the U.S. mainland; most have not been able to return.”

Additionally, clean water and food was hard to come by. Eyewitness accounts report VI Cargo, where much-needed food and supplies were being sent, was looted and burned. It was a challenging and scary time, to say the least. Ultimately, most of the USVI islanders had power back on by January 1, 2018 – months after the hurricanes hit.

In Puerto Rico, the blackout lasted even longer. 1.5 million customers lost electricity in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria. It would take 328 days before the power came back on, making it the longest blackout in U.S. history and the second-longest blackout in the world.

Yet, many of those people survived and lived to tell their tales. In hindsight, there are things they likely would have done differently to prepare. We’re taught to prepare for hurricanes, but we aren’t taught to expect blackouts that last indefinitely. Here are 7 survival tips we can gather from those who lived through the largest blackout in American history.

Blackout survival tip #1: Find ways to communicate with the outside world

With cell phone communication cut off, the people had to find other ways to communicate with the outside world. This is where having a two-way radio, such as walkie-talkies or CB radios, comes in handy.  Those who could access the Internet used the power of social media to connect with others and find help from those in the States.

Blackout survival tip #2: Learn how to make clean water

One of the most critical issues facing both the USVI and Puerto Rico during the blackout was a lack of clean water. With the power grid destroyed, water treatment facilities could not operate. Additionally, water sewage facilities failed, leading to contaminated water. As a result, residents were under a boil water advisory alert for months. If residents did not have bottled water, they had to know how to make clean water. Unfortunately, the conditions made it impossible for many to boil water in their homes. This is why we suggest people invest in an Alexapure Water Filtration System or at least know the various ways to make clean water.

Blackout survival tip #3: Stockpile food

The food in their refrigerators did not last long, and it was difficult for supplies to reach the devastated areas. This meant people had to rely on the food they had stockpiled until cargo ships could get into port and deliver essentials. Since we never know when a disaster is going to affect our power grid, it is wise to always have emergency survival food.

Blackout survival tip #4: Purchase alternative light sources

Flashlights and batteries should always be in your emergency kit or bug-out bag – specifically for blackouts. However, when you are talking about lengthy blackouts like this one, solar powered light sources are a better long-term option. Even in a blackout, the sun still shines. My Patriot Supply offers the following solar source items:

  • Portable Solar Oven
  • Solar Heated Camp Shower
  • Solar Rechargeable Flashlight
  • Wireless Solar PowerBank Charger
  • Emergency Solar Power Flashlight & AM/FM Weather Radio

Blackout survival tip #5: Get to know your neighbors

After a disaster of this magnitude, you cannot count on emergency personnel to help you. They may not even be able to reach you. That’s why it is important to know your neighbors. Your neighbors will be the closest people you can reach out to for aid and resources. Working with your neighbors will greatly improve your chances of survival. 

Blackout survival tip #6: Maintain a survival mindset

Lastly, maintain a survival mindset. The people of Puerto Rico and the USVI demonstrated resilience through this entire ordeal. Moreover, they remained positive. When Christmas rolled around without power, they still found ways to celebrate. A positive mental attitude and a strong belief that you can survive will go a long way.

Blackout survival tip #7: Invest in a generator


With the right supplies and the right attitude, you can survive an indefinite blackout, too.With the power off for months, the people of Puerto Rico and the USVI relied on generators to survive. But, even this was challenging as homeowners had to wait for hours at gas stations for fuel to operate their personal generators. Additionally, the people had to learn to use the generator conservatively since fuel was a precious commodity. However, even with the difficulty, generators provided people with much-needed power sources with enough power to run power tools or refrigeration. Puerto Rico was called Generator Island as generators were used to power everything from hospitals to water treatment facilities to air traffic control towers.

In liberty,


Elizabeth Anderson

Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply

 

SOURCES
https://recovery.fema.gov/funding-in-action/mariaPR7
https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/8/15/17692414/puerto-rico-power-electricity-restored-hurricane-maria
https://rhg.com/research/puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-worlds-second-largest-blackout/
https://www.npr.org/2017/11/14/564138720/2-months-after-maria-and-irma-u-s-virgin-islands-remain-in-the-dark
https://www.askaprepper.com/puerto-rico-this-is-what-living-in-a-6-month-blackout-looks-like/
https://mashable.com/2018/05/04/puerto-rico-blackouts-electricity-power/
https://www.happypreppers.com/blackout.html
https://www.offgridweb.com/preparation/how-to-prepare-for-a-long-term-power-outage/
https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/USVI%20Task%20Force%20Initial%20Report.pdf
https://www.npr.org/2017/10/15/557934009/in-puerto-rico-generators-divide-those-with-and-those-without

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