National News

U.S. Virgin Islands Say Lights Are Coming Back On

Posted January 9, 2018 11:56 p.m. EST

Months after two Category 5 hurricanes pummeled the U.S. Virgin Islands, officials said Tuesday that power has been restored to 92 percent of customers, a significant improvement from even a month ago, when about half of them remained in the dark.

Bringing power back up may help speed recovery in other areas that require basic infrastructure to operate, experts say, even as Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp estimated Tuesday that there was a long way to go after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Hospitals that sustained major structural damage on the islands, home to some 103,000 people mainly on St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas, continue to evacuate patients in serious condition to the mainland, Mapp said in an interview. Schools that have managed to reopen are juggling double sessions to accommodate students, and tourism — the economy’s lifeblood — is still slow, Mapp said.

The destruction the storms left on the islands — about 90 percent of customers lacked power in September — was at times overshadowed by the catastrophic devastation on neighboring Puerto Rico. About half of Puerto Rico’s more than 3 million people still do not have electricity, the government acknowledged on Dec. 29, 100 days after Maria cut its brutal path across the island.

On the Virgin Islands, “folks are getting properties more open, in terms of some hotel rooms, villas, condominiums that are used as Airbnb, and winter homes, in terms of people renting them out,” Mapp said.

“It’s an integral part of the recovery process, but by no means does it mean half of the recovery is over,” he said.

Some 3,000 of about 46,000 customers are still awaiting power, according to Jean P. Greaux Jr., communications director for the Water and Power Authority. Another 9,100 customers live in homes that still need to be rebuilt or fixed before they can be hooked up to the grid again, he said.

“We may not get those customers back immediately,” Greaux said. “It might take them six months to a year to rebuild.”

None of the customers whose power has been restored have been billed yet, Greaux added.

Power crews are combing side streets and remote neighborhoods to find people without electricity and start repairing streetlights, Mapp said. The government, already struggling with massive debt before the storms, is pushing to get asphalt plants back on line to begin paving ripped-up roads.

Mapp had estimated that restoring the power grid to its previous capacity would cost about $385 million, and that hardening it to make it more resistant to future storms could cost about $850 million.

Nearly 37,600 people on the Virgin Islands had registered for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, which can help with home repairs, rental costs and other personal property losses, before a deadline passed on Monday.

Getting to 92 percent power required the work of more than 1,000 linemen — all but a handful of them from the mainland — to install 8,851 poles, 5,142 transformers and 5.6 million feet of wire, Greaux said. More than 600 bucket, utility and trailer trucks, and derricks to dig holes in the islands’ rocky terrain were shipped in by barge. Many of the linemen were housed aboard two cruise ships. The Virgin Islands had to compete for contract workers and equipment with Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Mapp’s administration initially thought it could get the electricity turned on with 250 linemen, with full power back by April. But “that was just completely unacceptable,” the governor said.

Logistics experts brought in by Bloomberg Philanthropies, a charitable group founded by the former New York mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, recommended a more aggressive power-restoration plan, based on their experience after Hurricane Sandy.