By: Arelis R. Hernández, Washington Post
CAYEY, Puerto Rico — Norma Ramos and Helga Marrero stood outside, chatting, as a Thursday afternoon dusk diluted the last bits of blue sky and sunshine in La Merced.
Nearly every cement-block house along their meandering mountain road flickered to life as indoor lighting flashed on. A girl ran through the barrio and yelled, “Luz!” Power had returned. But the electrification only went as far as the bakery on the corner, where the linemen piled into bucket trucks and called it a day.
For Ramos and Marrero, one more long-suffering day. Who knew how much longer it would be until they, too, could rejoice at flipping a switch?
“Sunday,” Ramos said, reaching for a flashlight. “They promised we’d have electricity by Sunday. I guess I can wait. I’ve waited this long.”
The neighbors belong to a community along Puerto Rico’s “last mile,” the cluster of communities marking Hurricane Maria’s destructive path across difficult and isolated terrain, from the island’s southeast corner through the central mountains and out the northwest coast. They are among the last people on the island still without power, more than six months after the storm.
The hurricane knocked down the frail power grid that distributes wattage from generation plants in the south across transmission towers spread like dominoes along the peaks of the island’s mountains. The local public utility, which struggled to maintain normalcy in good times, has been trying alongside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore electrical service since September.
It has been a wearisome operation tainted by allegations of corruption and coordination, meltdowns, and the cacophony of politics, experts say. Many residents report that having been without power for so long has led them to lose faith in the state-owned power company and, ultimately, the island’s government.
“There has been no sense of urgency,” said Josian Santiago, the mayor of Comerio, whose town still has outages in its more isolated sections; some might never have their municipal power restored and will have to resort to alternatives. “The problem is not that we don’t have a lightbulb to turn on or a refrigerator to cool. . . . They are torturing the people.”
Left out of those statistics: More than 1,200 FEMA-provided generators are still the primary source of power for most of the island’s hospitals, more than two dozen police and fire stations, correctional facilities, and water pumps throughout Puerto Rico.
For every electric meter that fires back to life, there also is the fear — inevitable, at this point — that it will go dead again because of a substation fire, a transformer explosion or a snapped line. In mid-February, an explosion at a power plant plunged nearly 1 million people into darkness around San Juan, and rolling blackouts are common.
And another hurricane season looms just months away.
Crews are working against the clock to shore up a dilapidated system that took way longer to repair than anyone expected, and their work is largely returning the grid to its prior state, which everyone knows couldn’t handle a big storm.
“It’s going to fall again,” said Aníbal Díaz Collazo, a Puerto Rican politician representing Cayey, in the central mountains about 30 miles south of San Juan. “There will be new cables and new poles but no significant infrastructure improvements for a system that has already proven too weak to withstand.”
PREPA’s chief of technical operations, Carlos Alvarado, said the utility is working to improve construction standards and is making changes that will help the power grid be more resilient. It could take a decade to completely harden the system, he said.
“The way the authority’s system was designed does not make it apt to withstand another Category 5 storm,” Alvarado said. “But we are studying how we can improve it. We have been mitigating by installing metal poles, higher-quality cables and relocating certain lines and cutting down vegetation.”
A ticking clock
When Brian Bird and his workers headed out of their makeshift base camp on an old Air Force base in Aguadilla each day, they drove past an apartment complex just outside the gates. The residents would watch from darkened windows. Although the contracting chief and the crews were on their way to repair assigned lines — as instructed by the unified command — the apartment complex that sat just feet away was without power.
After looking on for months, one day in November, about two dozen residents yelled and protested, blocking the power brigades from leaving. The demonstration quickly dissolved and the trucks drove on by, but it didn’t sit well with Bird, who was working for the engineering corps. He said he didn’t understand how this community was not on his list of jobs despite being just next door.
“Me and some of my men went into the complex after work and spent five hours reconnecting those folks,” Bird said. “We just decided to help them.”
For many Puerto Ricans and their political leaders, the haphazard nature of the repairs has been puzzling at times and infuriating at others. They have demanded answers about the plan for power restoration and have been told they will have better information soon. PREPA just recently started giving mayors maps and timelines of its work schedule.
Federal officials asked the Army Corps of Engineers in late September to lead a temporary power-restoration mission — a job it previously had never done — and took control over contracting companies and ordering materials for work with which they had little experience.
In the early days of the island-wide blackout, PREPA did not activate the mutual-aid agreements that would have brought equipment and thousands of public-utility workers from the mainland United States onto the island quickly to begin the work. Instead, it sought help from a private contractor, Whitefish Energy, which promised to act quickly and efficiently, even if its going hourly rates were much higher than what linemen would normally receive.
The bulk of the workers from outside Puerto Rico did not start on the job until November — two months after the storm — according to contracting documents obtained by The Washington Post. Whitefish, a small Montana firm with little documented experience, was awarded a $300 million contract that drew scrutiny in part because of its size. The no-bid contract was canceled, and PREPA’s executive director was removed.
To Puerto Ricans, it looked like chaos, a confusing hodgepodge of work that resulted in one neighborhood street getting its power back while the next block, a few hundred yards away, remained dark.
PREPA was officially in charge of setting the priorities for restoration. A unified command met in San Juan with Carlos Torres, the governor’s appointee to coordinate the mission, along with the Energy Department, engineering corps leaders and FEMA, which worked to assign specific lines to each crew. But power struggles, finger-pointing and a lack of trust hampered the pace and direction of the operation.
“Yes, it can be messy, and yes, partners can have arguments about a problem, but you needed this complement of forces,” said Col. Jason A. Kirk, who is leading the corps in Puerto Rico. He then cited Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Coalitions are not the most efficient, but in the long term it is the most effective.”
Contractors and industry experts observing the power mission in Puerto Rico said in interviews that it was unclear who was in charge, leading to confusion and citizen reports of crews waiting around for assessments or for a line to be de-energized, or for tools to show up.
Mayors grew increasingly frustrated as they saw protests develop in their communities, and they had no information to help ease tensions. Municipal leaders stormed out of a meeting with PREPA and government officials in late February when they didn’t receive the detailed plan of action they were seeking.
Examples of the chaos were abundant. Jesús Colón Berlingeri, the mayor of Orocovis, said he once learned from PREPA’s Twitter account that the public utility was sending four brigades to his town. When the mayor called the power company’s main office to find out where they were, he was told the real presence in town was just a driver and one worker, but they were nowhere to be found.
“We are the ones who have to answer to the people,” said Colón, whose criticism earned him a rebuke by text message from Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “We don’t believe them.”
The governor has been critical of the corps from the start. As his administration was pummeled by the Whitefish scandal and calls from Congress to investigate other PREPA contracts, Rosselló lashed out. Echoed by members of his administration, he accused the corps of moving too slowly.
“I don’t see the urgency,” Rosselló said during a news conference on Feb. 28 following a meeting with island mayors, the corps and PREPA. “Today was the day the Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to give account for the work they’ve done. It was also supposed to be an opportunity for the mayors to express their concerns. I share those concerns and join in their demands for urgency so that the necessary materials and brigades can be assigned to restore the power grid.”
Alvarado, PREPA’s chief of technical operations, said the utility has improved its communication procedures, and days after Colón’s comments, top officials met privately with community leaders to lay out when crews would be there. The corps is now providing mayors with maps of the house-level plans for line work.
“Let’s see what happens,” Colón said as he emerged from the meeting.
Out in the field, line workers needed conductors, wiring and concrete poles, but they were difficult to come by on the island. Many pieces, including customized transformers, had to be shipped in by barge from U.S. factories.
The Army corps took control of ordering the estimated 35 million pieces of material to avoid competition and duplication. Officials relied on PREPA and contractors to tell them what was needed, and the corps submitted orders through the Defense Department.
But a supply crunch among mainland manufacturers left crews in Puerto Rico waiting for weeks for barges to arrive with new wires, poles and custom parts.
The governor and his surrogates publicly blamed the corps for delays and material shortages that kept brigades from repairs. Contractors had to buy electrical tape from local hardware stores, cables strewn across the ground were recycled on the fly, and workers pieced together transformers with parts salvaged from broken ones.
Amid the shortage, the corps confiscated previously undisclosed equipment sitting in a PREPA warehouse, causing some locals to call it a raid. The utility declined to explain the unused materials, noting that a Puerto Rico Department of Justice investigation found no violations of law on the part of the public utility regarding its storage of materials.
Republican members on the House Committee on Natural Resources this month demanded records about the incident and have sought information about allegations that PREPA utility workers were bribed with thousands of dollars and free tickets to San Juan strip clubs to reconnect those businesses expeditiously.
PREPA placed three workers from the Ponce region on unpaid leave while investigating accusations that they demanded illicit payments from customers to reconnect their service. The company said in a statement that it has received no complaints about bribes; PREPA has denied all other corruption charges.
“Despite relentless public criticism, the vast majority of PREPA’s employees have worked tirelessly to achieve the restoration of power under these very difficult circumstances,” PREPA said in response to the committee. “Those restoration efforts continue daily.”
The corps’ largest contractor, Fluor, is leaving the island while restoration efforts are still incomplete. People close to the Puerto Rican government and involved in power restoration on the island said Fluor’s exit is tied to slow performance. Lines given to Fluor’s contractors in the east and southeast of the island have been reassigned.
“There were expectations created that have not been completely fulfilled,” Alvarado said about the corps and its contractors.
The Texas-based global contractor said the scarcity of needed materials was a “limiting factor” but noted that Fluor restored power to more than 232,000 customers since October. Demobilization is a “normal part of the life cycle” when reaching the end of a government contract, the company said in a statement.
Kirk declined to discuss Fluor’s contract but said the company had reached its funding limit. He said that the mission is flowing more smoothly now and that more than 80 percent of the material ordered for repairs has been received. Kirk called criticism of the corps’ efforts “unfortunate.”
“The commitment that we have is very, very solid,” he said. “Any statements that we are not urgently executing this mission are not correct.”
Kirk added that the magnitude of the challenge has been far greater than anticipated.
Puerto Rico’s geography made the restoration work daunting, contractors said. Road access to transmission towers often was nonexistent, overgrown with trees, or too narrow or rocky to support large work trucks. Workers were unaccustomed to the terrain, weather and topographical diversity.
“If we were working an ice storm in New England, we expect a certain type of terrain,” said Aaron Strickland, an executive with another corps contractor, PowerSecure. “In Texas and Florida, you’re in flat land. But in Puerto Rico, you had flat lands, mountains, hills, swamps and everything in between.”
He noted one accident as emblematic of the issue: While contractors were working on power restoration, a road caved in, sending their truck down a steep embankment. While there were no injuries, the linemen were shaken — and knew they faced similar conditions elsewhere in the mountains.
“It pushes our limits just about every way you can look at pushing worker limits,” Strickland said.
The conditions of PREPA’s electrical grid before the storm hit magnified the difficulty afterward, said FEMA deputy regional administrator Ahsha Tribble. It was clear from the outset that to fix Puerto Rico’s long-term energy problems, simply restoring what existed before the storm would not be good enough.
But the engineering corps and FEMA have little wiggle room within federal regulations — specifically the Stafford Act, which directs federal agencies to restore what existed to its pre-disaster condition — to harden PREPA’s entire system to be more resilient. When possible, authorities have used steel or concrete poles to replace wooden ones. Lines that hadn’t been serviced in years were reinforced. New towers in some cases replaced those brittle from decades of rust.
The restoration will not modernize the technology into a smart-grid system that could allow authorities to more easily monitor and distribute power, nor will it create microgrids that could power regions individually if one part of the system fails. PREPA’s power grid uses few renewable energy sources, and outdated power plant machinery will not see design enhancements.
“I want to get Puerto Rico to the point where it says, ‘Bring it on!’ to future storms,” FEMA’s federal coordinating officer, Michael Byrne, told contractors in late February.
PREPA, which is bankrupt, had fallen behind in modernizing its grid, especially in terms of infrastructure. The system’s reliance on fossil fuels and an outdated design gave Puerto Rico’s system a reputation for poor efficiency, low reliability and high costs, according to Lisa Donahue, who was hired to restructure PREPA between 2014 and 2017 and testified about the issue before Congress.
Tribble said FEMA is working with a commission of industry experts and engineers to redesign the electrical grid from a 1950s centralized distribution system to one that includes regional microgrids and renewable energies. Changes to the law after Hurricane Sandy gave the agency some flexibility to fund projects that build more resilient infrastructure rather than just replace what was damaged.
But those funds are part of a fairly new program through the Department of Housing and Urban Development that are tied to fixed-cost estimates for each project; if costs are any higher than the estimates developed by the federal government, the jurisdiction must foot the bill — something Puerto Rico cannot afford.
Jenniffer González-Colón (R), who as resident commissioner is the island’s lone U.S. House representative, said she lobbied for legislation that would bring $16 billion in disaster relief to Puerto Rico, including $2 billion in federal disaster recovery grants for the power grid alone. But none of those dollars have yet reached Puerto Rico. HUD, through the disaster relief arm of its community development block grant formula, is waiting for a plan of action from the territorial government to redesign the system, but nothing has yet materialized.
“I hear a lot about a commission and work groups, but I see no product, no results,” said Eduardo Bhatia, minority leader in the Puerto Rico Senate.
In an effort to move forward, Rosselló is selling off some of PREPA’s assets and is privatizing parts of its operation. It is a plan demonized by the governor’s critics and union members who say there is no guarantee that a private company will run the system more efficiently. They also fear that customer rates would increase and that transparency would worsen. The governor’s allies see PREPA as an outdated monopoly and bloated bureaucracy that offers poor service and is plagued by corruption; they view privatization as the best solution.
PREPA has a new executive director, industry veteran Walter Higgins, who came out of retirement after running a power company in Bermuda.
“We have a real opportunity here, not just to restore power but to eventually deliver lower-cost, reliable power for all the citizens of Puerto Rico,” Higgins said in a statement.
There are still vast stretches of the island where there are no signs of improvement and the desperation is palpable.
During his daily radio program, host Luis Francisco Ojeda takes call after call from sobbing and angry residents reporting which barrios still have outages despite public pronouncements from PREPA that power has been restored.
“I don’t know where they got 10 percent?” said Carlos Collazo, a resident of Yabucoa who regularly listens to Ojeda’s show. “People from all over still don’t have power. I’m an accountant, and I don’t understand how they do their numbers.”
In Collazo’s community, the water pumps are powered by generators the mayor bought from a local businessman. A main road has power, but the surrounding neighborhoods don’t. Residents have protested by candlelight.
One night after firing up his generator, Collazo had an idea while watching his daughter eat a cupcake. In the time it took to find a candle, the 49-year-old concocted an ode to his electricity meter, marking six months since it stopped running.
“Feliz, feliz en tu día! Van seis meses de larga agonía,” Collazo sang to the tune of a Spanish birthday melody while holding a cupcake with a lighted candle. “Happy, happy day! It’s been six months of agony.”
It was a moment of catharsis on March 20 meant for his friends and family, but his children persuaded him to share the video publicly on social media. Collazo says that without a little levity, the situation would be unbearable.
“I blame the system of government, the bureaucracy that has kept us captive and at their mercy,” he said. “It’s sad and frustrating, but the worst part is feeling powerless.”