Over the summer, I read a moderately terrifying article in the Economist on what would happen if America lost electricity for a long period of time. If, say, hackers managed to infiltrate the system, or North Korea detonated a nuke 40 miles above Nebraska and caused an electromagnetic pulse, or if a solar flare acted up.
I'll get to the article's chief worries in a moment. My only experience in an electricity-free realm is trifling and limited to the 2003 blackout of northeastern America. Here's what I quickly learned at that time:
People Get Stuck
I thanked my lucky stars that I was working from home on the day of the blackout. Thousands of other New Yorkers were not so lucky, as they were riding in elevators and subway cars at 4:11pm. The Fire Department had a hell of a job to do, with roughly 800 skyscrapers, both office and apartment buildings, filled with people stuck in elevators. Transit conductors eventually led stranded commuters onto the tracks and to the nearest exit. Dirty people were literally climbing out of manhole covers like C.H.U.D. And with no train service, folks stranded far from home had no way to get there.
Communications Go Out
Obviously there was no cell phone service nor internet. The only way I knew what the hell was going on was because I'd started keeping a small transistor radio near me ever since 9/11, and I found the one working ratio station operating off of a backup generator.
Food Goes Bad
The first thing my neighbors and I did was to start eating all of our ice cream, as it was a hot August day and all of it would melt within hours.
People Can't Buy Things
People using plastic were S.O.L. Those with cash could only buy stuff if the store's cash register was mechanical.
Traffic Laws Break Down
When all the stoplights stopped working, downtown Manhattan turned into a snarled free-for-all, with intersections jammed with tangled cars pointed in all four directions.
The radio had urged us to start rationing water, as they didn't know how long the blackout would last. With no electricity, there's no way to pump water nor purify sewage.
Power was back on the next day, leaving me with some cute little stories to tell. But there's nothing cute about what is going on in Puerto Rico right now. Following Hurricane Maria's devastating path of destruction, "Most of the U.S. territory currently has no electricity or running water, fewer than 250 of the island's 1,600 cellphone towers are operational, and damaged ports, roads, and airports are slowing the arrival and transport of aid," says The Atlantic.
Some 90% of the power distribution network is out of commission, and Reuters reports that "[It] is expected to be a months-long effort to rebuild the island's power system, keeping much of its 3.4 million people in darkness for an extended period."
So what's going to happen next? The Economist article points to the troubles that we find familiar in post-apocalyptic TV shows and movies, which is the breakdown of society, looting, pillaging, law enforcement abandoning their stations to protect their own families, et cetera. I desperately hope that these things will not come to pass in a U.S. territory where the larger U.S. government is still functioning. In order to tackle the six points above, massive aid will be required.
Also required will be lots of people working together. In order for that to happen we need to clearly understand the problem, and communication between the different parties must be clear. I find that can be complicated by media bodies or readers who only want to focus on one side of the story.
For example, this morning papers like the Guardian are reporting that our President sent out a tone-deaf series of Tweets on Puerto Rico's crisis bringing up their debt status rather than any humanitarian words. That is true, and has left readers with the perception that he is not doing anything about the crisis; I myself find that easy to believe.
However, PBS News Hour has printed this contradictory evidence from a conversation with Puerto Rico's Governor, Ricardo Rossello:
JOHN YANG: Governor, are you getting all the aid you need or getting it fast enough from the states?
GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLO: First of all, we are very grateful for the administration. They have responded quickly.
"The president has been very attentive to the situation, personally calling me several times. FEMA and the FEMA director have been here in Puerto Rico twice. As a matter of fact, they were here with us today, making sure that all the resources in FEMA were working in conjunction with the central government.
"We have been working together. We have been getting results. The magnitude of this catastrophe is enormous. This is going to take a lot of help, a lot of collaboration. So, my call is to congressmen and congresswomen to take action quickly and conclusively with an aid package for Puerto Rico.
"We are in the midst of potentially having a humanitarian crisis here in Puerto Rico which would translate to a humanitarian crisis in the United States. So, I call upon Congress to take action immediately. You know, Puerto Ricans are proud U.S. citizens."
Governor Rossello also points out something many of us may not have realized:
GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLO: We have shown [we are proud U.S. citizens] when Irma went through our region. It impacted us, but that didn't stop us from going to the aid of other almost 4,000 U.S. citizens that were stranded in some of the islands. We gave them food, shelter. We make them out of harm's way and we have them go back to their homes.
If you are interested in offering assistance, there is a list of ways you can help here.