Work crews have repaired storm-damaged Puerto Rico’s electricity grid in fits and starts over the past 11 months, but they had never managed to light up Méndez’s mountaintop home — until this week, when she became among the last residential customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to have service restored.
Puerto Rican storm victim gets her power back, nearly a year after hurricane Maria
PONCE, Puerto Rico — Jazmín Méndez has lived much of the last year in the dark. No light to read by. No food cooled in the fridge. No television for her three children.
“The first thing I will do is give thanks to God,” she said, sitting in her living room surrounded by beach coolers, water jugs and gas cans. “At first, I fell into a depression. Now we’ve gotten so used to it, that I’m sure if another hurricane comes, we’ll pass the test.”
It has been a long wait for Méndez, 44, who has experienced firsthand the many woes that the island’s population suffered after Hurricane Maria.
The storm washed out the pipes that brought fresh water to her home in the rural Ponce neighborhood of Real Anón. Her generator was stolen last year, and she did not get a new one from a local church until two weeks ago. Parts of her zinc roof blew off, and now it leaks, but problems with her deed disqualified her for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. Using rainwater out of barrels gave Méndez a waterborne kidney infection that landed her in the hospital for nearly three months.
After spending $3.2 billion, erecting some 52,000 new electrical poles and stringing 6,000 miles of wire from the federal government alone, the Puerto Rico electricity system is not in much better condition now than it was before Maria cut power to every home and business on the island.
Even as some of the last customers are reconnected, many billions of dollars more must still be spent to reconstruct the system and fortify the transmission lines that have been so tattered and poorly maintained that when a mishap occurs, the lights can go out on the entire island.
The new head of the electric utility estimates that up to one-quarter of the work done hurriedly to illuminate Puerto Rico after the storm will have to be redone.
“There are many patches — too many patches — developed just to bring power to the people,” said José Ortiz, the new chief executive of the power authority, known as PREPA. “Now we have to redo that thing.”
He acknowledged that repairs were stalled because the bankrupt utility’s inventory of supplies like electrical poles was too low to begin with and then was depleted by Irma, the hurricane that struck the Caribbean two weeks before Maria. He said the challenges now are to add more solar energy generation so the island will rely less on expensive oil, and to make its high-voltage transmission lines less failure-prone.
“This looks like a mess, really, from the outside,” he said. “Once you are inside, you see it is even worse.”
Ortiz has been on the job for just three weeks. His immediate predecessor came and went in about 24 hours, and the director before that lasted four months. The authority’s entire board of directors quit last month in a dispute over salaries for the new executives and political meddling by elected officials.
PREPA still needs to complete repairs to five critical transmission lines, 12 damaged substations and three transmission centers that are needed for grid stability and redundancy, said Gil Quiniones, the chief executive of the New York Power Authority, which has helped in Puerto Rico’s recovery.
“The No. 1 goal was to get electricity back as quickly as possible,” Quiniones said. “On the one hand, there’s lots of new stuff. On the other hand, the crews and other contractors really rushed the work to put it back together.”
Michael Byrne, the federal disaster recovery coordinator for Puerto Rico, said the utility’s task now is to design and build a resilient distribution and transmission system that can better withstand problems large and small.
“We’ve been flying helicopters all over this island for 11 months now, stringing new lines and putting new towers in,” Byrne said. “So the level of effort has been historic. But that was just to patch back together what was there.”
Just after the governor of Puerto Rico announced in November that the power authority had gotten back to 50 percent of its former electricity generation, the island suddenly went dark, in one of what would be a series of wide blackouts in the months following the Sept. 20 storm. Just last week, the power went out again in large swaths of San Juan.
Asked to describe the island’s power grid, Byrne said, “It’s stable, but fragile.”
The long haul of repairs involved thousands of electrical workers from around the country, including crews from three companies that were sent home early. One was dismissed in a scandal over inflated prices; another amid accusations that it had accomplished too little for the $1 billion it was paid. The third had accidentally caused a major power outage.
The most contentious of the three was Whitefish Energy, a small Montana firm that appeared to get a major contract out of nowhere, with few employees and very little experience of large-scale work. The fact that the secretary of the Interior’s son had been an intern at the company prompted accusations of insider dealing, and the company was criticized for charging more than $300 an hour for each lineman it deployed.
Ortiz said that PREPA was waiting for an opinion from FEMA’s inspector general before paying $104 million in outstanding bills the company has submitted.
The company said it feels vindicated, because PREPA records posted online show that Whitefish fixed five transmission lines and completed other tasks for a total of $140 million. The PREPA records indicate that other companies billed far more and took longer to complete their projects.
Earlier this year, a FEMA official publicly praised the work Whitefish had done. By contrast, PREPA has grumbled about the slow pace of work done by Fluor, a major contractor brought in by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Things went just as badly for the local companies that worked on the grid, several of which went out of business.
“It bankrupted us,” said Francisco Lasanta, the owner of SM Electrical, a Ponce company that estimates it is owed about $2.3 million from both PREPA and contractors who were also not paid. “The company is going to disappear.”
Records filed in federal court show at least 20 local companies were not paid for their work.
Ortiz said a number of problems had delayed the payment of $18 million owed to local businesses, but that a special task force has been assembled to expedite the payments.
PREPA said that Méndez was the last of its residential customers to get power who was able to — meaning that some homes are still too damaged to be reconnected. FEMA generators are still powering the islands of Vieques and Culebra. And a few houses in Luquillo, which are not PREPA clients, require special permits, because they are very close to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. forest system.
For the Méndez family, the chance to have electric service again mostly means not having to spend $50 a week on fuel for their generator, an expense that Jazmín Méndez, a stay-at-home mother who relies on public assistance, can hardly afford.
The government installed a new water cistern, but FEMA denied her the money she needed to install the required new pipes. So, even with the power back on, she will still have to get water every day by traveling down the mountain, past the landslides that frequently cause flat tires.
She cannot afford cable TV any more she said, but at least the children can use their PlayStation again, and will not have to go to bed as soon as the sun goes down.
“At first, a lot of agencies came, giving water and food,” Méndez said. “But that ended, so now you really have to do everything yourself. I don’t know where Puerto Rico is going to end up. It seems everything went from bad to worse.”
The New York Times
Frances Robles © 2018 The New York Times
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