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Here’s why restoring power in Puerto Rico is taking so long

Four months after Hurricane Maria, about 450,000 of 1.5 million electricity customers in Puerto Rico still have no service. Blackouts regularly occur for hours at a time, even in San Juan. Special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports on the emergency efforts to restore power, and how some have taken matters into their own hands as outdated technology and suspected corruption stand in the way.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's hard to fully comprehend, but more than four months since hurricanes swept through the Caribbean, about half of Puerto Ricans remain without electricity.

    This week, Governor Ricardo Rossello announced the island's public energy monopoly would be sold off to private companies following a series of scandals.

    In the first of two reports from Puerto Rico, special correspondent Monica Villamizar looks at what's behind the delay in restoring power and how people are coping.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    When Hurricane Maria struck in September, fires broke out and victims had to run to the station to inform firefighter Ronald Vega and his colleagues. There was no way to dial 911. This fire station in the eastern town of Naguabo is now functioning normally.

    But at Ronald Vega's home nearby, there is no electricity. He uses a generator at night and relies on emergency food aid. The signs of water damage still loom above his head.

  • Ronald Vega (through interpreter):

    It's not easy. It's such a tough situation. I'm paying at least $15 a day for the fuel of my generator during the week. That's every day.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    As a firefighter, Vega makes less than $20,000 a year. Before the storm he was already supplementing his income with part-time work at Walgreens. Four months after the storm, about 450,000 of the 1.5 million electricity customers are without service.

    Blackouts occur regularly our hours at a time, even in San Juan. Outside the capital, destruction remains. In Salinas, home to the island's largest power plant, Barber Julio Ortiz set up shop at a ruined gas station. It took him three months to find an inverter to connect his razors to the car battery.

  • Julio Ortiz (through interpreter):

    People have to survive one way or another. I have to make it happen somehow because, you know, money doesn't grow on trees.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The response here remains an emergency. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers coordinates repairs by private contractors using dollars from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

  • Woman:

    We're standing at the lay-down yard where all of our large items come into.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The Army Corps oversees materials distributed across the island, but under the federal Stafford Act, FEMA is only allowed to restore infrastructure exactly as it was before a disaster.

    In some cases, materials in Puerto Rico were so outdated that the Corps had to get them made especially for the island, furthering delays.

  • Col. John Lloyd:

    It really doesn't allow to do more resilient or hardening work that made that Puerto Rico's grid definitely needs.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Colonel John Lloyd directs the Army Corps' operation from the headquarters of the electricity utility.

    So what's the point of restoring it to something old and essentially in bad shape?

  • Col. John Lloyd:

    The work that we are doing does — it brings it up to code, and in many cases the grid wasn't to current code.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    And when do you think everybody will have power again?

  • Col. John Lloyd:

    We will slowly get more customers online. I think by the middle of March, end of March, we're going to see the majority of customers with power.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Many people have accused Puerto Rico's only electric utility company, PREPA, of being corrupt and wasteful.

    Before the storm, PREPA was bankrupt, and it saved money by cutting down on important maintenance. After the storm, PREPA contracted Whitefish, a small, Montana-based firm, for repairs it could not complete. The contract was canceled, but PREPA still has to pay Whitefish more than $100 million for work done.

    And then this week, the Puerto Rican governor announced that PREPA will be privatized over the next 18 months.

  • Gov. Ricardo Rossello (through interpreter):

    The process will begin for PREPA assets to be sold to companies who will transform the generation system into a modern, efficient, and less expensive one for the people.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The privatization is not expected to affect the repair schedule. About 80 percent of electrical infrastructure was destroyed.

    PREPA told us that restoring power everyone on the island, not just the majority, is expected to take at least until May, eight months after Hurricane Maria. Houses across the countryside are lined with blue tarp on their roofs.

    But not everyone is waiting for outside help to move forward with repairs.

  • Arturo Massol Deya:

    We don't depend upon the grid to supply the energy needs of Casa Pueblo.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Arturo Massol Deya is the head of Casa Pueblo, an environmental organization in Adjuntas. This local community center has been running on solar energy since 1999. The sun powers everything, from industrial coffee grinders to medicine refrigerators, as well as a radio station.

  • Arturo Massol Deya:

    Lighting was a critical thing. And it was a way to teach people how inexpensive, easy it is to embrace renewable energy sources like the sun, in which you are less vulnerable, because the capture of the energy and the utilization of the energy is at the point of consumption.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Casa Pueblo is technically still connected to the grid. But it creates so much power that it can send it back into the system.

    The Puerto Rican government still hasn't approved regulations for people to provide power to the grid with solar. In addition to the costs of infrastructure, that's one more barrier to making alternative energy widespread.

    The government does plan to increase renewable power from only a small amount to 30 percent of the island's energy, so it can be more prepared for the next hurricane.

    This place became a very important power source for the entire community after the hurricane. People were coming here to charge their phones and get solar lamps and refrigerators. And the radio station never stopped broadcasting, because it runs on solar energy.

    It's a community station where people call in to request their favorite salsa songs and make dedications to friends and family. In the hills around his town, Arturo has installed solar power systems to connect vulnerable people isolated from the power network.

    Jonathan is disabled, living with his grandmother, Luz Leida Plaza. With solar, they have lights and power for their phones and a tiny fridge for medicine. The same system powers a neighbor's dialysis machine.

  • Luz Leida Plaza (through interpreter):

    Before they had a solar system, my neighbor told me he had to connect his mother's machine to a car battery all night.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    It's a familiar story to Ronald Vega.

  • Ronald Vega (through interpreter):

    In some places, they are fighting, fighting to get electricity. People in many villages say they feel that they have simply been forgotten. And that's because, in many places, they are still without power and lights, and it's been more than 116 days.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    And like Casa Pueblo, his fire station is now prepared. Thanks to a solar power system brought to the island by Las Vegas firefighters, they are strong enough to weather the next hurricane. For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Monica Villamizar in Puerto Rico.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And in the coming days, we will continue our series After the Storms with additional reports from Puerto Rico and from Texas.

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