It’s been more than a year since Hurricane Maria ran roughshod over Puerto Rico, but the island is still struggling to escape from under its long shadow.
New imagery released on Monday at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting shows the challenges of getting the light back on. The insights the researchers reveal could be used to help respond to the next disaster on the island or anywhere throughout the Caribbean.
The images are what NASA calls its “black marble.” It’s like the blue marble—satellite images of Earth in the daytime—but for nighttime viewing. To create them, NASA scientists looked at satellite images captured at night and weeded out fires, reflective surfaces like lakes that might catch the glimmer of the moon, and other natural sources of light. They took what was left—all the human sources of light—and overlaid it on a striking black map of Puerto Rico.
The before-Maria image is vibrant, showing San Juan shining bright like a diamond, and the constellation of smaller cities like Ponce, Mayaguez, and Caguas lit up like Orion’s belt across the southern tier of the territory. But in images of Puerto Rico after Maria, which struck as a Category 5 monster in September 2017, the entire island is basically dark as only those with solar panels or generators were able to light up their houses.
The lights slowly flickered back on, but NASA scientists found that, perhaps not surprisingly, rural areas struggled to power back up. More than 40 per cent of long-lasting power outages occurred in rural locales despite being home to much smaller populations. By comparison, just 29 per cent of the long-duration outages were in urban areas, places that are largely more wealthy.
The lack of light in the countryside is what drove Puerto Rico to have the second-longest blackout ever recorded anywhere in the world. It also neatly illustrates that the poorest suffer the most from climate catastrophe and that inequality is likely to intensify as the planet warms and violent weather becomes more common.
With the power out, it wasn’t just a question of not being able to watch television, but a question of life and death. According to NASA, areas with prolonged power outages also lacked access to medical resources.
A landmark study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government earlier this year found Hurricane Maria led to 2,975 excess deaths on the island, some of which were due to lack of medicine or care.
But if the new research shows where governments and Puerto Rico’s utility failed during Maria, it also points to opportunities for how to improve disaster response and preparedness for the next storm. By visualising where the outages lasted the longest, utility crews could pre-position tools or develop plans for how to access and restore power quicker. Ditto for first responders.
The maps also reveal where it may make sense to prioritise grid improvements or install community or rooftop solar and battery storage. Ultimately, it will make sense for other cities, states, and countries to take heed, given the weather we’ve seen over the past year.