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The Great Apagón of Puerto Rico 2016

Posted by Cassie

Most of Puerto Rico lost power Wednesday afternoon. We were in a panadería ordering some food when the power went out. It is not too uncommon to lose power. No one really freaks out and many people have a generator because it occurs frequently enough to warrant one. Generally though it is only out for less than an hour. We headed up the hills with our pollo and arroz con habichuelas largas to visit some friends. By 7pm there was still no luz (power). From the perch of Atalaya where we were visiting we could see that this was not just a local power outage. This was widespread, but we didn’t know anything else.

Line of cars to the gas station in our neighborhood

As we drove through the plaza downtown on our way home we saw lines of cars backed up as well as lots of police cars. Still, nothing too serious seemed to be happening, so we weren’t sure if it was related to the power outage or not. Most localized power outages result in little to no action on the part of people. It’s just a part of life. At this point in time we still hadn’t heard the news, but it seemed that something was going on. So we stopped at a little store to ask.

From the person at the counter we heard that apparently a fire had erupted at a main electrical plant substation. There were rumors of an intentional sabotage and the estimated time to get the system back up was anywhere from 24 hours to 10 days or more! So that was why everyone was out buying all the ice, gas, alcohol and gallons of water! It was like a dry, windless hurricane! The gist of the news was confirmed or repeated by various people. Now that we have power and internet again, we have a little more information, but at that time we were literally in the dark and had to rely on what others were telling us.

Our quiet little generator doing its job with a curious chicken

The evening was a little hotter than normal without the fans blowing on us and our sleep was  a bit disrupted by our neighbor’s huge noisy generator that he ran All. Night. Long! The next morning we got our little generator out just to cook, charge the laptops and run the fridge for a bit. Whenever the power goes out, so does the water. Luckily we are at the end of the line and have about 2-6 days worth of water if we ration. Still, we were preparing for a stinky, showerless time and we mostly peed outside to avoid flushing too much.

Making egg and avocado sandwiches during the power outage

As I was preparing food on the floor of our little cabana I realized we were celebrating our 3 year anniversary of living full-time in Puerto Rico!!  Haha! A lot has changed since we moved here, but some things stay the same. A similarity is that you must be flexible and ok with these kinds of outages. Whether it’s just a local issue like a blown transformer or a tree falling on a line or a widespread issue like this one or a hurricane or earthquake, there ARE going to be outages here a lot more than other places. This gran apagón was not nearly as long as some that we have gone through, but it affected the most people -more than 1.5 million!

Power strip working extra hard!

So how do we prepare for power and water outages? Well, we are still learning how prepared (or unprepared) we really are, but here are a few things that might be handy in these kind of outages.


Light sources (candles, lantern, flashlights, etc)
Hand cranked/battery powered tools like fans
Cash! Many credit card readers and ATMs will be down
BBQ grill and basic cooking supplies and extra food including canned foods
Extra water storage both potable (drinkable) and non- just to flush toilets/rain water catchment
Generator (many people wait until there is an emergency and then there is a run on the stores)
Extra gas for your vehicle and generator
Knowledge of generator-powered WIFI spots to keep in communication
If you like to drink alcohol it might be good to have an extra store because they often institute the Dry Law which prohibits the sale of alcohol during an emergency
Low-tech entertainment like cards, dominoes, board games, coloring books, etc
And most important: Lots of patience, a sense of adventure and a silver-lining attitude

Obviously, the longer the outage the harder (and stinkier) it becomes and the more creative you will need to get. When things start running out at the stores, it will also be a completely different situation. For me in a short term situation like this, the lack of a long, warm shower and fans was probably the most noticeable thing. We didn’t want to go outside and work in the yard or in the cabin because we wouldn’t be able to shower very long. Also, I find that while we don’t have a TV, I am quite dependent on the internet for my entertainment and pacification. So I was getting a little stir crazy. Our solution: go down to the beach and hang out with others in the apagón (outage). At the beach, life is just as calm and beautiful as ever. Plus it felt good to wet myself down even if it is salty water.

Day of the Apagón/3 year anniversary in Puerto Rico was just another beautiful day at the beach

In the evening we brought our little generator to jam practice and played music. Afterward we stared up at the starry sky. Without the light pollution of the island, the stars and Milky Way glowed majestically.

Puerto Rico normally at night (satellite images from NASA)

Puerto Rico during the Apagón

I find this image to be very striking for just how much more lit up Puerto Rico is than Hispaniola

As we pulled up to our gate, I noticed that the streetlight was on at the witching hour of midnight. The power had come back on. The great Apagón was over. Just in time to go to sleep. Now, we just await the return of the water.

Yet another Puerto Rico adventure for the books.

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