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Puerto Rico hit by island-wide power blackout

(Reuters) – A power line failure in southern Puerto Rico cut electricity to almost all 3.4 million residents on Wednesday, the latest in a string of operational and political headaches for the US territory’s bankrupt, storm-ravaged power utility.

In a statement, the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, said “technical personnel” were working to determine a cause and expected to restore service in 24 to 36 hours.

Puerto Rico’s smaller islands of Culebra and Vieques, as well as a pair of microgrids on the main island, were unaffected.

PREPA has struggled to escape the headlines since Hurricane Maria wiped out power to all of Puerto Rico last Sept. 20.

Maria, the worst storm to hit the island in 90 years, devastated Puerto Rico’s grid and thousands were still without power at the time of Wednesday’s blackout.

PREPA has suffered several blackouts since Maria and has been in bankruptcy since last July, owing some $9 billion to a slew of mutual funds, hedge funds and other investors.

In October, Governor Ricardo Rossello canceled a $300 million contract awarded by PREPA to a tiny Montana-based company amid political backlash.

Three months later, the US Army Corps of Engineers discovered undistributed hurricane relief materials in a PREPA warehouse, sparking Rossello to order a separate investigation.

A US Congressional committee in March announced its own probe into potential corruption at PREPA, including reports that some officials accepted bribes to restore power to exotic dance clubs ahead of schedule.

A week later, PREPA revealed it had been hacked, though customer data was not affected.

Rossello is planning to privatize PREPA over the next 18 months, as Puerto Rico navigates a $120 billion bankruptcy, the largest in US government history.

In the short-term, though, the grid remains vulnerable ahead of a new hurricane season beginning this summer.

Falling revenues, a loss of staff and constant leadership turnover have contributed to an outdated fleet of equipment, which was exposed when Maria brought winds up to 155 miles per hour.

Compounding that, most of the island’s generation is done in the south and trekked through miles of wires to the bulk of the population in the north.

“We need to have power to the north to avoid this kind of chain reaction every time we have a power problem,” said Tomas Torres, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Competitiveness and Sustainable Economy for Puerto Rico.

The latest outage comes as Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins square off in San Juan on Wednesday night, part of an effort by MLB to bring attention to and raise money for Puerto Rico.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has criticized PREPA and the US response to the power restoration effort, said on Twitter that the city will bring in extra lights and security for the game.

“The game will GO ON,” Cruz said. “Nothing will stop us.”

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