By Luis Valentin Ortiz
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Puerto Rico's public power utility said on Monday it has restored electricity to almost all the island, nearly a week after the strongest earthquake in more than a century knocked out all power and caused at least $110 million in damage.
Nearly 5,000 people left homeless by a series of quakes have taken refuge in government shelters, officials said on Monday, in addition to hundreds if not thousands more people who are sleeping outside their homes.
Public power utility PREPA, also known by its Spanish acronym AEE, announced power was restored to 99 percent of homes and businesses while also urging people to conserve energy because the largest generating plant on the Caribbean island remains offline.
PREPA shut down the power grid as a safety precaution amid a series of earthquakes including one of 6.4 magnitude last Tuesday that damaged nearly 600 buildings and killed at least one person.
The Costa Sur plant, largest power plant in the U.S. territory with a capacity of 970 megawatts, remained out of commission after suffering severe earthquake damage and could take up to a year to repair.
As long as it remains offline, the remaining power plants will need to run at or near capacity to meet demand of about 2,000 megawatts.
"We urge you to moderate your use of electricity for system stability," PREPA said on Twitter on Monday.
The island of 3 million people has about 1.5 million electricity customers, with power restored to 99% of them, PREPA said.
Governor Wanda Vazquez, who assumed office five months ago when her predecessor resigned amid a political scandal, has estimated damage at $110 million, although the newspaper El Nuevo Dia put the figure at $460 million just based on its survey of officials in the municipalities of Ponce, Guanica, Guayanilla, Yauco and Utuado.
Schools will remain closed until Jan. 22 or until engineers can complete inspections, officials said, as so far only 46% of school buildings have been examined. Classes had been set to resume on Jan. 9 after the Christmas break but that date has been delayed twice because of the earthquakes.
Puerto Rico has yet to fully recover from Hurricane Maria, which killed nearly 3,000 people in 2017, and is going through a bankruptcy process to process to restructure about $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.
(Reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz; Additional reporting and writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)