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Hundreds still without power in Puerto Rico as power outages continue

When Hurricane Maria reached Puerto Rico last year, the island was already facing austerity measures in the wake of a debt crisis. Since then, $3.8 billion has been spent to strengthen the power grid but 260 customers still have no electricity, and during Tropical Storm Beryl in July, 47,000 people lost electricity. The Associated Press’ Dánica Coto joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Tonight we are devoting most of our broadcast to Puerto Rico in crisis. We'll feature our own extensive reporting over the past several years and look at how Puerto Ricans, both on the island and on the mainland, are coping. But we begin with the situation on the ground right now. And for that we turn to reporter Dánica Coto of The Associated Press who joins us now from the city of San Juan via Skype. Let's first talk about the federal aid. What's the status of it?

  • DÁNICA COTO:

    Well, so far, the government has spent about $3.8 billion worth of federal funds to help strengthen the power grid. Obviously, there's a lot more work to be done. The total cost is estimated to be more than $17 billion. And I recently spoke with the FEMA head here who said that about $1.4 billion still remains unspent. In addition to that, they receive funds to the Community Development Block Grant program. And that's meant to, you know, help people rebuild. But so far, there's about more than 48,000 Puerto Ricans who have been denied assistance by FEMA.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Let's talk about the basic infrastructure of power. Do most of the people living on Puerto Rico today have the capacity to turn their lights on regularly?

  • DÁNICA COTO:

    Most people are now connected back to the power company. There's about 260 customers that remain without electricity. Most of them are in about five to seven municipalities. You know, many in rural areas. But power outages remain common. You know, every single day, the power company reports outages so there's not a stable system in place yet. People are still spending money to run generators. Others have opted to go solar. And the biggest concern is that the power grid isn't ready to withstand another storm. The remnants of Tropical Storm Beryl that hit Puerto Rico earlier this month caused up to 47,000 people to remain without power and that was not even a storm. You know, we're in the middle of hurricane season and both federal and local officials acknowledge that any kind of storm, even less than a Category 4 storm that hit last year, will greatly damage the grid.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Also, tell us a little bit about the austerity measures. How is that impacting the people today?

  • DÁNICA COTO:

    Well, there's a battle right now in court over those austerity measures. A federal control board that is overseeing Puerto Rico's finances is implementing its own budget despite the protests from the governor, who says these austerity measures are not needed and that they will further damage the economy. A judge recently heard both sides earlier this week and a resolution is expected next week. This could set a precedent, you know, for basically establishing how much power the board has and how much power the current administration has. Obviously, Maria did great damage. A lot of businesses closed. People are still struggling. A lot of them lost their savings trying to fuel generators. So currently austerity measures, you know, are not supported by the governor and definitely not by the people.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You've also been reporting recently about an investigation in the forensic institute and basically an underinvestment in it. Tell us about that.

  • DÁNICA COTO:

    Well, currently there's about five pathologists at the forensics institute when officials say that at least 15 are needed. The governor recently requested, you know, health officials in the U.S. to help. So on Monday there will be a group coming to Puerto Rico from the Department of Health and Human Services and then they'll basically assess the situation at the forensics institute and then make recommendations and send a team. The governor has said that he would like the team to remain at least one to two years. You know, there are several people complaining that they have not received autopsy reports, that they have not been able to recover the body of their loved ones. And the forensics institute says basically they're just understaffed and unable to handle the increase in bodies.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Dánica Coto of the Associated Press joining us via Skype from Puerto Rico tonight. Thanks so much.

  • DÁNICA COTO:

    Thank you very much.

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