Puerto Rico warned power grid 'literally falling apart' before Maria hit

PHOTO: Power lines hang precariously on the side of the road on highway 118 near San Isidro, Puerto Rico, Oct. 14, 2017.PlayJose A. Iglesias/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images
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In the wake of hurricane Maria, President Trump has been quick to praise the federal government's response to the disaster, including the widespread power outages that have plagued Puerto Rico since the storm made landfall four weeks ago.

He has repeatedly blamed some of the devastation on the island's outdated power grid, which was "poorly maintained, corruptly managed," and "wasn't in good shape to start off with."

"Their electrical grid was destroyed before the hurricanes got there," he told reporters during a lengthy press conference in the Rose Garden Monday. "It was in very bad shape, was not working."

And while some may criticize his seeming willingness to dismiss the island's humanitarian crisis, there is evidence to back up his comments about the commonwealth's ailing power grid.

Just 10 months before Maria struck, a scathing report commissioned by the Puerto Rican Electrical Power Authority (PREPA) warned that the energy infrastructure was facing a "crisis."

The 218-page study, released by Synapse Energy Associates in November 2016, argued that Puerto Rico's power grid is "literally falling apart," and noted that Perto Ricans suffer service outages at rates four to five times higher average U.S. utilities customers.

The group blamed the situation on inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, loss of competent staff, and "a myopic management focus on large risky bets."

According to Sergio Marxuach, Policy Director at the non-partisan Center for a New Economy, simple tasks, like pruning the trees that toppled lines during the storm, were postponed due to PREPA's budget woes. The company was so short of cash that it had filed for bankruptcy before Maria hit.

"A tropical climate, that really affects a mostly above-ground system in ways that are different than, say, Nebraska," Marxuach, who was still lacking power in his own home weeks after the storm, told ABC.

"The lack of maintenance possibly magnified the damage to the grid that the hurricane created here," he added. "If that work had been done, perhaps the damage in some areas would not have been as bad."

PREPA -- a virtual monopoly led by political appointees, whom Marxauch says are generally "averse to change" -- relies on outdated technology, says the report.

The average generation plant on the island is around 44 years old, "significantly older" than the average plant in the continental U.S. About 70 percent of the generators rely on oil, rather than fuels favored by the mainland, like natural gas, Marxuach said. And unlike states in the lower 48, Puerto Rico can't use an emergency line from a neighboring grid to borrow power during an outage.

Last fall, less than a year before the Maria hit, a power plant fire sparked a massive blackout that lasted nearly three days, leaving most of the island's sweltering residents without power or water services for around 60 hours.

"It is difficult to overstate the level of disrepair or operational neglect" at PREPA facilities, the Synapse report said. "PREPA's system today appears to be running on fumes."

PREPA did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

However, despite all the grid's pre-existing issues, Marxuach believes Trump's comments are "a little bit unfair."

"I do see his point, there were problems with the grid before the hurricane hit," he told ABC. Maintenance "probably could have mitigated some of the damage -- but the damage would still have been catastrophic."

He added, "hopefully, once they patch up the system ... we will start thinking seriously about how we can reconfigure the system to make it more resilient."

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