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As Hurricane Florence approached, President Donald Trump relied on his track record to assure the public his administration is ready.
"I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success," Trump told reporters on Sept. 11.
Puerto Rico recovered full power in August, 11 months after Hurricane Maria. Trump attributed the struggle to the territory’s floundering power system.
"Puerto Rico got hit not with one hurricane but with two (hurricanes)," Trump said. "And the problem with Puerto Rico is their electric grid and their electric generating plant was dead before the storms ever hit. It was in very bad shape. It was in bankruptcy. It had no money. It was largely — you know, it was largely closed."
"And when the storm hit, they had no electricity — essentially before the storm," Trump said. "And when the storm hit, that took it out entirely."
Was the power system dead on arrival? Trump is exaggerating. The White House pointed to the power grid’s state of disrepair.
First, there’s a difference between the electric grid and generating plants. Plants produce electricity using fossil fuels or renewable energies, while the grid ensures that power gets to the areas that need it.
Jorge Carmacho, a senior policy advisor at Urban Ingenuity who assessed the electric infrastructure damages after the hurricanes for the government of Puerto Rico, estimated roughly 30 percent of the generating plants were not operational before the storm hit. He identified two reasons.
One is non-compliance with Environmental Protection Agency rules, which set limits on fossil fuel burning. The other was maintenance, propagated by unprecedented oversight by Puerto Rico’s recently created Energy Commission.
One of the main issues they were trying to fix was the grid, which Trump also mentioned. It is run by PREPA, a government utilities program, which is bankrupt, as Trump said. It faces $9 billion of debt.
Trump was right in saying it was in very bad shape. But it wasn’t dead or closed.
Before the hurricanes hit, all customers were being serviced, according to James Gallagher, executive director of New York State Smart Grid Consortium, which is working to stabilize Puerto Rico’s grid. About 10 to 15 percent of customers lost power after the first hurricane, Irma.
But coverage was spotty even before the hurricanes. In 2016, for example, a fire resulted in a three-day blackout. The consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics estimated that on average, customers face a power outage every three months.
"PREPA was in bankruptcy," Carmacho said. "That’s true. But were they pushing electrons to people so they could turn on the lights? Yes. Was it reliable? No. it hasn’t been reliable in 20 years. We might have an outage every three days. That has been the norm."
The bulk of Puerto Rico’s generating plants are located in the southern part of the island, while consumption is mostly in the north. The complex system that transfers energy from one side to the other forms its Achilles heel during climate disasters like this one, according to Marla Perez Lugo, a sociologist at the University of Puerto Rico focusing on energy policy.
Unlike in the United States, where an outage in Ohio can be fixed by connecting to the grid in Illinois, an island electric system relies on reserves, on which Puerto Rico falls short, according to Carmacho.
Trump said "Puerto Rico’s electric grid and their electric generating plant was dead before the storms ever hit. It was in very bad shape. It was in bankruptcy. It had no money. It was largely -- you know, it was largely closed."
Some electric generating plants, not the majority, were inoperative before the storm hit due to maintenance work. The grid was servicing all customers but had important vulnerabilities.
Trump's statement is partially accurate. We rate it Half True.
Correction Sept. 13, 2018: PREPA, the Puerto Rico government utilities program, has debts totaling $9 billion. An earlier version of this story included a different number.
Phone interview with Jorge Carmacho, senior policy advisor at Urban Ingenuity, Sept. 12, 2018
Phone interview with James Gallagher, executive director of New York State Smart Grid Consortium, Sept. 12, 2018
Email interview with Marla Perez Lugo, sociology professor at Puerto Rico University, Sept. 12, 2018
Email interview with Mario Marazzi, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute, Sept. 12, 2018
Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico Energy Commission, Nov. 23, 2016
Email interview with Sara Sendek, Homeland Security spokeswoman, Sept. 12, 2018
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