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A Space View of Puerto Rico's Massive Blackout

A catastrophic power interruption has kept much of the island in the dark.

On Wednesday night, a major power plant in southern Puerto Rico caught fire —there is no indication it was caused by a squirrel—and abruptly killed the lights on some 1.5 million homes across the U.S. territory.

The accident, which also interrupted water service for nearly 340,000, shuttered schools and businesses and sowed traffic mayhem. (As of Thursday evening, the antiquated power grid hadn’t recovered and most of the population was still without electricity.) It also left the island looking like it’d been nearly scribbled out with an immense Sharpie marker.

Here’s Puerto Rico at 2:50 a.m. local time on September 21, right before the fire, as seen by the Suomi satellite:

NASA/Suomi NPP

And here it is the next night around 2:31 a.m. The area around San Juan in the north still had juice; most other places didn’t:

NASA/Suomi NPP

The folks at NASA who provided these images write:

“With something of this scale, we’re not just seeing an outage. We are seeing a complete stoppage in the rhythms of daily life,” said Miguel Román, a scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and member of the Suomi NPP science team.

“These nighttime satellite images help bring a level of situational awareness so we can clearly identify the extent of the impacts into key lifelines of a city’s infrastructure,” added David Green, the program manager for NASA’s Disaster Response Program. “We hope that power, civil, and health authorities can use imagery and data like this to map the extent of affected areas and prioritize their personnel and resources to restore critical infrastructure.”

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.