Amateur Radio volunteers went on alert following an afternoon explosion on September 21 at the Aguirre Central Power Generator in Salinas that left some 1.5 million residents of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico without power. ARRL Public Information Coordinator Angel Santana, WP3GW, said that as Wednesday evening wore on, the most sought-after item was ice, followed by potable water — which depends on electricity to power the pumps that deliver it. The outage also resulted in traffic jams from non-functioning signal lights. The governor of Puerto Rico has declared a State of Emergency.
“On the Amateur Radio side, the VHF/UHF linked repeater system of the Federación de Radio Aficionados de Puerto Rico (FRA), an ARRL-affiliated club, was the main source of information,” Santana told ARRL. “As soon as the situation began, lots of mobile and portable stations got on the air from east to west to report on the power loss, and ham radio was among the first to report the explosion, as smoke was observed soaring toward the sky.”
According to FEMA, the fire at the Salinas switching station caused the island-wide power generation plant to shut down as a safety precaution. FEMA reported on September 23 that power had been restored to nearly 950,000 customers, with complete power restoration expected late in the day. FEMA said 305,000 customers were left without drinking water due to the loss of power to pumping stations.
FEMA said that all critical facilities were operating on back-up generators, and airports, police stations, and water plants were “expected to receive first priority as power is restored.” The agency said telecommunications were operating normally.
Santana said the eastern side of the island was covered by the 145.110 MHz repeater in Cayey, the western by a machine on 145.290 MHz, and in the center by the 146.830 MHz from the FRA. Repeaters on 70 centimeters became the main network for any emergency or health care traffic, Santana said.
A routine Wednesday VHF net made it on the air as scheduled, and most comments and messages involved local situations as well as information about an October 9 FRA event. “Other repeater systems were on the air as part of a regular monitoring schedule, and some were active with normal conversations,” Santana said.
On HF, Antonio Santiago, KP4IA, in Toa Alta was on the air from his energy-efficient home. Santana said KP4IA was “the main source of what was happening even before the situation got to the mainland news services,” checking into nets on 20, 40, and 75 meters and relaying information about the situation to other amateur stations on the mainland.
Santana said local schools remained closed on September 23 and public services were to resume at 10 AM, as power and water service is returning gradually.
“There are still Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (AEE) customers who are without electricity,” Santana said. “Two cellular companies had problems. There was at least one death because of generator emissions and a few vehicle accidents. Kudos to the police personnel directing traffic.”
FEMA said untreated wastewater and sewage were being discharged into spillways, hospitals were running on back-up generators and cisterns, and buses are being used to move passengers as the light-rail system is down.
NASA provided a view from space, showing how Puerto Rico appears at night with full power as well as how it looked during the outage.