On the morning of September 27, Hurricane Ian hit Cuba. By the end of the day, authorities announced the collapse of the country’s entire power grid.
The island nation is no stranger to power cuts. Years of deep economic crisis have led to the gradual deterioration of the power grid, with Cubans becoming experienced at navigating unstable electricity supplies. However, days or weeks-long country-wide blackouts are a rare occurrence. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, the island’s north coast was heavily hit, leaving many in the dark for weeks.
As Hurricane Ian barreled past Florida and continues to churn up the U.S. southeastern coast, the blackout continues in many parts of western Cuba, including Havana, forcing Cubans to get creative in keeping their cellphones, laptops, and personal electronics charged and functional. This is how people accustomed to strife and storms prepare their digital devices for the long darkness ahead.
Calm before the storm: 2 to 5 hours before the blackout
Cubans are accustomed to seeing the lights go out even before they feel the first gust of wind. The government’s protocol is to turn off electricity services once wind of a certain strength is detected at sea. In the hours before the storm hits, people focus on freezing most of their food and charging all their devices. This includes batteries to keep old radios running, since, if the internet goes out or cellphones use up their charge, this will be the only way to keep track of the storm.
The eye of the storm: 0 to 10 hours into the blackout
Internet access and cellphone signal immediately deteriorate as rain and winds intensify. Even if bored and locked indoors, most stay away from their phones at this point. There is no need for it — the internet is no longer available as the storm rages.
Immediate aftermath: 12 hours into the blackout
The countdown begins as services start to shut off one by one. Cuba’s electric grid is set up in such a way that, when power generation fails, other utilities such as gas and water supply to residential areas gradually shut off too, in order to deliver these utilities to essential services.
As the storm clears, more users start engaging again, and trying to connect to the internet.
When Hurricane María and Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico and Cuba, respectively, in 2017, both islands suffered electrical outages for weeks. “People weren’t even able to stay online,” said Doug Madory, director at the internet analysis company, Kentik, to Rest of World. “People took steps to insure themselves against longer power outages, this included 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 the high demand for them, generators are still expensive and inaccessible for many.
Electrical adaptors: 24 hours into the blackout
Because supply in Cuba is so poor, electrical generators have become a thriving business across the country, even when the weather’s fine.
“People adapt the battery outlets on their electric scooters and motorcycles to connect their phones. But for many, the primary source of electricity is this emergent black market of power generators,” Karoline Astorga, a university worker and resident of Havana, told Rest of World. “People … charge your phone or laptop for a fee of around 200 pesos ($2),”
This trend is consistent with the data coming from internet-traffic trackers. “We see a decline in internet traffic to Cuba. Down by a half, but not out,” said Madory. “Two things must happen for this level of traffic to be true while the electrical grid is down: There are backup generators running to keep ETECSA’s [Cuba’s telecoms company] infrastructure online and people also have access to generators to recharge their phones or power their computer equipment.”
Unrest stirs: 48 hours into the blackout
Blackouts are a dangerous time for the government as well. During the current blackout, internet traffic in Cuba actually dropped off completely on Thursday afternoon. Madory interpreted it as a government response to country wide protests, as people left their darkened homes and headed to the streets to protest the blackouts.
In need of contacts: A week into the blackout
As 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 — bring friends and family to recharge devices.
At the end of the tunnel: 13 days into the blackout
In 2017, Cuba was hit by a major hurricane. Irma reached the island’s north-east as a category five, leaving many without electricity for almost two weeks. After more than 10 days without power, most methods of keeping devices charged become unviable. Most food had gone to waste and essential services remained unavailable.
As certain areas in most cities slowly started reconnecting to the grid, solidarity became the best way to make it through. People would walk 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 face greater risk, it is difficult to reconnect and get help. In places like Florida, you can drive over to other locations to get food or even power. Islands are way different. But this also proves that telecom is something that you need to develop resiliency for as well,” concluded Madory.