Puerto Rico's power struggles predate Hurricane Maria

Nation

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico's power grid, but it turns out Puerto Rico's power company was in deep trouble before the storm struck two weeks ago. "Reuters" reporter Jessica Resnick-Ault has reported on that side of the story. She joins me now from Metairie, Louisiana, where she is already deployed to cover Hurricane Nate.

So, here we are this far out after the storm, and according to the status that the governor's office in Puerto Rico is saying, 11.7 percent of the power is back?

JESSICA RESNICK- AULT, REPORTER, REUTERS: At this point, you know, you would expect really to be returning close to full power, but you have to assume that in this case, it's just the low-hanging fruit that's been brought back online. So this was the 11 percent that was easy to get to, and now, they're going to have to run power lines across mountains. There are really serious hurdles to getting the rest of the island back into service.

SREENIVASAN: One of the things that's your report points out is they had kind of a staffing migration of people that's left the power company. The people who are going to be able to put the grid back together found better jobs on the mainland because of the way the economy is going.

RESNICK-AULT: Puerto Rico has had an incredible emigration out of the island to the mainland, and the power company is no exception to the rule. They've lost thousands of employees over the past five years. Some people estimate as many as 4,000 or more employees have left the company.

SREENIVASAN: One of the things that was startling from the report is there is really not a steady stream of revenue. Not everybody pays their power bills.

RESNICK-AULT: Right. Even the government has not paid its own power bills. There are up to $700 million in uncollected bills from government agencies.

SREENIVASAN: I've heard that some of the tech companies are trying to start helping. I mean, we saw kind of a Twitter conversation roll out between Elon Musk and the governor yesterday, saying perhaps solar and batteries can be part of your solution, if you're rethinking this thing from scratch.

RESNICK-AULT: But even before the storm, there had been discussions about solar and renewables. They even made it to the Department of Energy level with Puerto Rican officials meting with the DOE. But those conversations have never materialized in real change in Puerto Rico's grid because PREPA and its board have such control over the island's electricity grilled and have been resistant to change that would bring in new utilities.

SREENIVASAN: So, where do you start building and where do you start fixing the infrastructure? I mean, what do the Army Corps of Engineers and what do other forces do? Do you start with, say, the key places, like the hospitals and kind of crucial infrastructure, the power and water?

RESNICK-AULT: So, they have a list of priorities and they'll start with critical infrastructure, like hospitals, police stations, and go from there. They're very focused on making sure that any infrastructure that has to do with fuel is restored. So as long as people are relying upon diesel generators, they need to make sure that stations that provide diesel are functioning and accessible.

SREENIVASAN: All right. This is going to be a long, long recovery.

Jessica Resnick-Ault of "Reuters", thanks so much for joining us.

RESNICK-AULT: Thank you so much for your time.

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