The Oklahoman

Power outages grip Puerto Rico

Authoritie­s blame mechanical failures

- Dánica Coto

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Not a single hurricane has hit Puerto Rico this year, but hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. territory feel like they’re living in the aftermath of a major storm: Students do homework by the light of dying cellphones, people who depend on insulin or respirator­y therapies struggle to find power sources and the elderly are fleeing sweltering homes amid record high temperatur­es.

Power outages across the island have surged in recent weeks, with some lasting several days. Officials have blamed everything from seaweed to mechanical failures as the government calls the situation a “crass failure” that urgently needs to be fixed.

The daily outages are snarling traffic, frying costly appliances, forcing doctors to cancel appointmen­ts, causing restaurant­s, shopping malls and schools to temporaril­y close and even prompting one university to suspend classes and another to declare a moratorium on exams.

“This is hell,” said Iris Santiago, a 48year-old with chronic health conditions who often joins her elderly neighbors outside when their apartment building goes dark and the humid heat causes temperatur­es to soar into the 90s.

“Like any Puerto Rican, I live in a constant state of anxiety because the power goes out every day,” she said. “Not everyone has family they can run to and go into a home with a generator.”

Santiago recently endured three days without power and had to throw out the eggs, chicken and milk that spoiled in her refrigerat­or. She said power surges also caused hundreds of dollars of damage to her air conditione­r and refrigerat­or.

Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, which is responsibl­e for the generation of electricit­y, and Luma, a private company that handles transmissi­on and distributi­on of power, have blamed mechanical failures at various plants involving components such as boilers and condensers. In one recent incident, seaweed clogged filters and a narrow pipe.

Luma also has implemente­d selective blackouts in recent weeks that have affected a majority of its 1.5 million clients, saying demand is exceeding supply.

Luma took over transmissi­on and distributi­on in June. Puerto Rico’s governor said the company had pledged to reduce power interrupti­ons by 30% and the length of outages by 40%.

The island’s Electric Power Authority has long struggled with mismanagem­ent, corruption and, more recently, bankruptcy.

In September 2016, a fire at a power plant sparked an island-wide blackout. A year later, Hurricane Maria hit as a Category 4 storm, shredding the aging power grid and leaving some customers up to a year without power.

Emergency repairs were done, but reconstruc­tion work to strengthen the grid has yet to start.

“We’re on the verge of a collapse,” said Juan Alicea, a former executive director of the authority.

He said three main factors are to blame: Officials halted maintenanc­e of generation units under the erroneous belief they would soon be replaced. Scores of experience­d employees have retired. And investment to replace aging infrastruc­ture has dwindled.

Luma has said it expects to spend $3.85 billion to revamp the transmissi­on and distributi­on system and company CEO Wayne Stensby said Luma has made significant progress in stabilizin­g it.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi blamed the outages on management failures at the Electric Power Authority and called the repeated failures “untenable.”

Pierluisi himself has faced calls to resign – hundreds gathered to protest near the governor’s mansion on Friday – and many are demanding that the government cancel Luma’s contract.

The president of the power authority’s governing board resigned last week and a new executive director, Josué Colón, was appointed, promising to visit all generation units to pinpoint the problem.

Some people have taken to banging pots at night in frustratio­n in addition to organizing protests.

Among those planning to join is Carmen Cabrer, a 53-year-old with asthma and diabetes. She has been unable to use her nebulizer and recently had to throw out insulin for lack of refrigerat­ion. The heat forces her to open her windows and breathe in pollution that aggravates her asthma. She cooks and washes clothes at irregular hours, fearing the power will go out again.

The outages are especially aggravatin­g because power bills have been rising and the pandemic has forced many people to work or study from home.

Barbra Maysonet, a 30-year-old call center operator who works from home, said she sometimes loses an entire shift and doesn’t get paid for lack of power. She’s hesitant to work at the office because she doesn’t want to expose her mother and grandmothe­r to COVID-19.

“It really puts a dent in my paycheck,” she said. “I have to rethink things. ... I’m going to have to risk my health just to be able to pay the rest of the bills.”

Those who can afford it buy generators or invest in solar panels, but budgets are tight for many on an island mired in a deep economic crisis and a government that is effectively bankrupt.

Even attempts to rely on alternate sources of energy often are frustrated.

Manuel Casellas, an attorney who recently served as president of his 84-unit condominiu­m complex, said the owners agreed to buy a generator more than a year ago at a cost of $100,000. However, they first need a power company official to connect the generator to the grid. He has made four appointmen­ts, and said officials canceled them all at the last minute without explanatio­n.

“This has created great annoyance,” he said. “This is a building with many elderly people.”

Casellas himself has at times been unable to work at home or the office because of power outages at both. If he can’t meet with clients, he doesn’t get paid. Like others, he is considerin­g leaving Puerto Rico.

“Every time the power goes out here it pushes your post-traumatic stress button,” he said, referring to the harrowing experience­s many went through after Hurricane Maria, with an estimated 2,975 people dying in the aftermath. “You can’t live without electricit­y.”

 ?? CARLOS GIUSTI/AP ?? Multiple selective blackouts have been recorded in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the past few days.
CARLOS GIUSTI/AP Multiple selective blackouts have been recorded in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the past few days.

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