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Hurricane season is coming and Puerto Rico still has a big power problem

Seven months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and its power grid, the entire island lost power on Wednesday -- the biggest outage since September. As crews keep working to restore power to the full island, residents are raising questions once again about the adequacy of those efforts. Amna Nawaz gets an update from special correspondent Monica Villamizar.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we keep our focus on the Caribbean.

    Seven months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and its power grid, the entire island lost power yesterday. In fact, crews are still working to restore electricity to the full island today.

    Amna Nawaz explores how it's raising questions once again about the adequacy of those efforts.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    While the latest blackout affecting more than three million residents is the biggest since September, there have been periodic problems with electricity on the island.

    Less than a week ago, more than 850,000 people lost power. Yesterday's hit came after a subcontractor removing a tower got too close to a high-voltage line. It went out of service and triggered a shutdown.

    But even as most streets and homes went without, some used backup generators, and there were generators for a special baseball game last night between the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins.

    The latest episode raises many questions again.

    And our special correspondent Monica Villamizar, who has covered the problems there, joins us once again.

    Monica, welcome.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Thanks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, you have been reporting on this painfully slow pace of recovery ever since Hurricane Maria hit.

    But this doesn't seem to be related to Maria anymore. Everyone's wondering, how does this keep happening?

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Yes, absolutely. That's a great question.

    Many people — Puerto Ricans right now are being out to sort of be patient and understand, at least by the PREPA, by the utility — power utility company — that keep on asking everybody, be patient and understand that generating electricity and distributing it to everybody is very difficult, and our infrastructure was absolutely decimated by Maria.

    But if you stop think, Puerto Ricans are saying, how can we be patient after not having electricity for months on end? Many people still today do not have power.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Right.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    And how can it be so complicated?

    The truth of the matter is, in all fairness, it is complicated. And the grades is — was very poorly damaged, but it was also in very bad conditions.

    They have a massive transmission problem right now, which means it's really fragile and unstable. So, if you will, you knock down a power — like you say, how can that throw the whole island into darkness? That's not normal, normally what happens in other countries.

    In Puerto Rico, it's happening because the system that was put in place and the power grid is so obsolete, that this is the situation they have.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, it was a bad problem decimated and made worse by this Category 5 storm seven months ago.

    So, who owns the problem? Who actually has responsibility to try to fix it now?

  • Monica Villamizar:

    That's a great question. And that's sort of what we have been seeing, a political blame game.

    So, the power utility company blames FEMA. FEMA blames the Corps of Engineers. Puerto Ricans blame the Trump administration. Everybody is going to blame everybody. But in the end, the island is bankrupt. There is no money.

    And to fix this enormous problem is going to take billions and billions of dollars that the island does not have. So they're facing a very serious situation, which is fixing a massive problem, fixing it soon, because, remember, hurricane season is going to start again.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Right.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    And in the meantime, all these local authorities and politicians throwing blame around.

    In the end, everybody is to blame in a way. But what they have to do and what a lot of people are telling me now is that they want to look to local authorities and pass that to sort of try to own the situation, as you say, and make something better for the island, really, try to construct the future themselves.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And what about people on the ground? What are they telling you now? How do they feel after all this time and where they still are today?

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Well, so, most people at the beginning, when we first reported in Puerto Rico, and the generalized feeling was, we are American citizens and we are being treated as secondhand citizens by the company administrations effectively, because the response to our hurricane wasn't the same as we saw in Florida or Texas, for instance.

    And there was no sense of urgency. But we were here dying and hungry and being affected.

    It's sort of slightly shifted now, and I think they're looking to their local authorities, to Governor Rossello, to Mayor Carmen Yulin, et cetera, like, what are you going to do to fix our problems?

    Because, you know what, in the end, they say they don't have education because of all this debt restructuring and the consolidations of schools, et cetera. They don't have education, they don't have power, and they don't have health.

    So when a government is not providing that, it's somewhat failing in its role. And that's when people are really going to start asking more of their local authorities and local leaders, because they really need solutions to urgent problems.

    And the situation they're facing right now is, we stay here and make things better, or we have to leave to the mainland.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And with hurricane season around the corner, they need those solutions fast.

    Monica Villamizar, thanks for being here.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Thanks for having me.

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