Puerto Rico residents could be left without power for four to six months after Hurricane Irma swiped the northern coast of the island on Wednesday.
Irma’s storm eye didn’t come ashore in Puerto Rico, but roared past with heavy winds. At least three people were killed, but the island escaped the large-scale devastation seen on nearby Barbuda and St. Martin.
Ricardo Ramos, executive director of Puerto Rico's utility company, PREPA, said about two-thirds of the island's more than one million electric customers are without power. More than 56,000 people were without potable water.
Ramos said PREPA is making efforts to store electricity, but the lack of maintenance and investment in equipment may contribute to a lengthy blackout.
"There are going to be blackouts. Areas that will spend three, four months without electricity," Ramos said, according to EFE.
Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory with a population of more than 3 million, is in the midst of a major economic crisis, with more than US$70 billion in debt. In May, it filed for the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
PREPA, a government-owned utility, defaulted on nearly US$9 billion in debt in July, NPR reported. Because of that, PREPA is in a severe state of financial distress, unable to modernize its system and facing a shortage of high-skilled workers.
"The hurricane has passed. Now we are in an emergency situation, making sure that everyone is safe. We are assessing the levels of damage, and the need for recovery and assistance," Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello told the Washington Examiner in a statement Thursday.
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, has stationed more than 500 officials in Puerto Rico and more than 450 shelters are available for residents, which together can hold roughly 63,000 people.
Carlos Mercader, executive director at the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said FEMA is just beginning to survey the damage and he's working with Congress on additional funding for the island.
"Trying to create awareness about the impact that Irma was going to have in Puerto Rico and in the region and the need for them to address an additional increase to that disaster recovery fund," he added.
Early on Friday, Irma was about 125 km northeast of Cuba's northeastern coast and 725 km southeast of Miami. It pummeled the Turks and Caicos Islands after saturating the northern edges of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Even though it was downgraded to Category 4, Irma was still carrying winds as strong as 240 km per hour, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.