ANAPRA, Mexico — The days-long blackouts are costly for the families in Pastor Ismael Martinez’s care as they result in spoiled food, ruined appliances and water shortages.
Martinez operates Pan de Vida, a migrant shelter housing about 70 Central American and Cuban asylum seekers. The shelter and its neighbors in this impoverished area on the edge of Ciudad Juárez experienced an unusually high number of power outages in June when compared to past years. The blackouts — which occurred several times a week — lasted between a few hours and three days.
“The blackouts are very stressful for the children and the elderly, because of the heat, but also because we can’t access water,” Martinez said in Spanish. “There is no water for flushing the toilet, for showering, no water to drink.”
Anapra residents say Mexican officials are keeping them in the dark about what caused the recent blackouts in their neighborhood, which coincided with record triple digit temperatures in the region. The impact of the blackouts stretches beyond the shelter. Without electricity, many wells — the primary source of water in the area — can’t be pumped for days or weeks at a time.
The Federal Commission of Electricity, known by its Spanish acronym CFE, did not make officials available for an interview for this story.
Residents in at least 38 Júarez neighborhoods were impacted by a series of blackouts in the city, according to the newspaper El Diario. Outages were reported to last between a couple of seconds to several days. El Paso and Las Cruces also experienced blackouts in June, but for much shorter periods of time.
El Diario initially reported that the commission cited both car crashes that damaged power poles and people who don’t pay the utility and illegally tie wires directly to power lines for electricity that overloaded the grid as reasons for the blackouts. The newspaper later wrote that additional questions about adding more transformers in the city to prevent further blackouts remained unanswered.
The rolling blackouts and lack of water come as scorching, triple-digit temperatures combine to pose risks to vulnerable people, especially the young and elderly.
Martinez said the shelter lost hundreds of dollars worth of food after it spoiled in refrigerators ruined during the blackout. Even after the power returned, electrical surges rendered some of the appliances, including televisions and a washing machine, useless.
Several people posted comments on the official CFE de Ciudad Juárez Facebook page that accused the company of either ignoring requests for services or not responding to questions about the blackouts.
The only concrete response Martinez received from the CFE is that the blackouts are caused by higher stress on the grid from increased air conditioning use. To Martinez, this explanation makes little sense.
“There’s been a lot of demand for air conditioning in the last two years, but fewer blackouts before,” he said. “I don’t know how there’s been a change (now) where we’re looking at four days of the week without electricity.”
On top of ruined appliances, the shelter’s residents had to adapt to losing the water supply for two weeks.
In the shelter’s central yard, children play soccer while parents watch from the shade of trees. But portable toilets now occupy part of the outdoor space and people wait their turn at two, 10-foot tall tanks to haul buckets of water to their rooms.
The water, pumped from wells on the shelter’s site, is too saline to be potable. A purification system is under construction. For now, people have to buy drinkable water outside the shelter.
To add to the stress, several children in the shelter have also contracted chicken pox, several parents said. Berta Luz Torres, whose 13-year-old son Gerson caught chicken pox, hauled water several times a day in five-gallon buckets. She wished she could do more for the itchy rash and his fever.
“It’s difficult because I can’t even bathe him,” she said.
Sara Miranda and her three children have stayed at Pan de Vida for two years since leaving El Salvador to seek asylum in the U.S. She said this June there were more blackouts than previous summers and the problems continue.
“Even when the power’s back on there’s not enough electricity to run the air conditioning in the heat, there’s just enough for the lightbulb,” Miranda said. “It’s not the normal amount of power.”
Michael Craig, an assistant professor in energy systems at the University of Michigan, said although the cause for the outages in Ciudad Juárez are difficult to determine, what remains constant is utilities’ need to adapt to power challenges like high temperatures.
Craig said extreme heat, which is even more likely due to climate change, puts almost every single part of a power system in a crunch. It stresses the supply while demand rises and — power generation is less effective, and so is getting power into homes, all while more people add more demand.
He said large-scale blackouts are not “an insurmountable challenge” if utility providers make changes to their expectations of how much electricity people need, and how they generate it.
“That’s why it’s a planning challenge, and why we have to really update our data and models to account for it,” he said. “Because it’s not just like one thing that’s happening, you have a lot of stress all happening at the same time.”
Corrie Boudreaux contributed to the reporting of this story.
Cover photo: Berta Luz Torres hauls water from storage tanks at the Pan de Vida shelter in Anapra. Torres and other shelter residents do not have running water inside their apartments since a series of blackouts in June. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)