On the morning of September 27, Hurricane Ian hit Cuba. At the end of the day, the authorities announced the collapse of the country’s entire electricity grid.
Power outages are no stranger to the island nation. Years of deep economic crisis have resulted in gradual deterioration of the power grid, with Cubans experienced in dealing with unstable power supplies. However, nationwide power outages lasting days or weeks are rare. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, the island’s north coast was badly hit, leaving many in the dark for weeks.
As Hurricane Ian swept past Florida and continued to pound the U.S. southeast coast, power outages continued in many parts of western Cuba, including Havana, forcing Cubans to get creative to keep their cell phones, laptop computers, and personal electronics charged and working. This is how people, used to arguments and storms, prepare their digital devices for the long darkness ahead.
Calm before the storm: 2 to 5 hours before the power outage
Cubans are used to the lights going out before they even feel the first gust of wind. Government protocol is to switch off the power supply as soon as winds of a certain strength are detected at sea. In the hours leading up to the storm, people are focused on freezing most of their groceries and charging all of their devices. That includes batteries to keep old radios going, because when the internet goes down or cell phones run out of charge, it’s the only way to keep an eye on the storm.
The Eye of the Storm: 0 to 10 hours after the power outage
Internet access and cell phone signal deteriorate immediately when rain and wind intensify. Even if they are bored and locked indoors, most of them stay away from their phones at this time. It’s not necessary – the internet is down as the storm rages.
Immediate consequences: 12 hours after the power failure
The countdown starts when the services are turned off one by one. Cuba’s electricity grid is designed so that in the event of a power generation outage, other utilities such as gas and water supplies to residential areas will also be phased out in order to provide those utilities with vital services.
As the storm abates, more users will start engaging again and try to connect to the internet.
When Hurricane María and Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico and Cuba, respectively, in 2017, both islands experienced power outages for weeks. “People couldn’t even stay online,” said Doug Madory, director of internet analytics firm Kentik rest of the world. “People have taken steps to protect themselves against prolonged power outages, including buying generators.”
The average generator can typically run for eight or nine hours on about a gallon and a half of gasoline. In the case of Cuba, despite high demand, generators are still expensive and out of reach for many.
Electrical adapters: 24 hours before power failure
Because of the poor supply in Cuba, electric generators have become a thriving business across the country, even when the weather is nice.
“People are adapting the battery sockets on their electric scooters and motorcycles to connect their phones. But for many, the primary source of power is this burgeoning black market for power generators,” said Karoline Astorga, a university employee and Havana resident rest of the world. “People … charge your phone or laptop for a fee of about 200 pesos ($2),”
This trend is consistent with data coming from internet traffic trackers. “We are seeing a decrease in internet traffic to Cuba. Halfway down but not out,” Madory said. “Two things need to happen for this level of traffic to be true in the event of a power outage: Backup generators need to be running to keep the ETECSAs up [Cuba’s telecoms company] Infrastructure online and people also have access to generators to charge their phones or power their computer gear.”
Unrest stirs: 48 hours into the power failure
Power outages are also a dangerous time for the government. During the current blackout, Internet traffic in Cuba actually collapsed completely on Thursday afternoon. Madory interpreted it as the government’s response to nationwide protests, as people left their dark homes and took to the streets to protest the power outages.
Needs contacts: One week after power failure
When fuel runs out, those with personal generators also lose power. Those with access to hospitals, hotels and government offices — some of the few buildings with backup generators — are bringing friends and family to charge devices.
At the end of the tunnel: 13 days blackout
In 2017, Cuba was hit by a severe hurricane. Irma reached the northeast of the island as a category five, leaving many without power for nearly two weeks. After more than 10 days without power, most methods of keeping devices charged become useless. Most food had been wasted and essential services remained unavailable.
As certain areas in most cities slowly got back on the grid, solidarity became the best way to get by. People would go to the nearest town or village where friends, or friends of friends who had been reconnected to the grid, could provide electricity to charge a phone, cook a meal, or just watch TV.
“Island nations are at greater risk, difficult to reconnect and get help. In places like Florida, you can drive to other places to get groceries or even electricity. Islands are very different. But this also proves that telecoms is something that needs to be resiliented too,” Madory concluded.