SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Not a single hurricane has hit Puerto Rico this year, but hundreds of thousands of people in the United States feel like they are living in the aftermath of a major storm: Students do their homework in light of dying cell phones, people dependent on insulin or respiratory therapy struggle to find sources of energy, and the elderly are fleeing sweltering homes amid record temperatures.
Power outages across the island have increased in recent weeks, some lasting several days. Officials have blamed everything from algae to mechanical failures, as the government calls the situation a “glaring failure” that urgently needs to be corrected.
Daily blackouts disrupt traffic, fry expensive appliances, force doctors to cancel appointments, cause temporary closures of restaurants, shopping malls and schools, and even prompt one university to suspend classes and another to declare a moratorium on exams.
“It’s hell,” said Iris Santiago, a 48-year-old woman with chronic health conditions who often joins her elderly neighbors outside when their apartment building darkens and the humid heat rises in the years. 90 Fahrenheit.
“Like any Puerto Rican, I live in a constant state of anxiety because the power goes out every day,” she said. “Not everyone has a family to run to and walk into a house with a generator. “
Santiago recently endured three days without power and had to throw spoiled eggs, chicken and milk in his fridge. She said the power surges also caused hundreds of dollars in damage to her air conditioner and refrigerator.
Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, which is responsible for generating electricity, and Luma, a private company that manages the transmission and distribution of electricity, have blamed mechanical failures at various factories involving components such as boilers and condensers. In a recent incident, algae clogged filters and a narrow pipe.
Luma has also implemented selective outages in recent weeks that have affected the majority of its 1.5 million customers, saying demand exceeds supply.
Luma resumed transmission and distribution in June. The governor of Puerto Rico said the company is committed to reducing power outages by 30% and outage duration by 40%.
The Island’s Electric Power Authority has long struggled with mismanagement, corruption and, more recently, bankruptcy.
In September 2016, a fire at a power plant triggered an island-wide blackout. A year later, Hurricane Maria struck as a Category 4 storm, shredding the aging power grid and leaving some customers without power for up to a year.
Emergency repairs have been carried out, but reconstruction work to strengthen the network has not yet started.
“We are on the verge of collapse,” said Juan Alicea, the authority’s former executive director.
He said three main factors are to blame: Officials halted maintenance on production units mistakenly thinking they would be replaced soon. Dozens of experienced employees have retired. And investments to replace aging infrastructure have declined.
Puerto Rico’s power generation units are on average 45 years old, double that of the Americas.
Luma said he plans to spend $ 3.85 billion to revamp the transmission and distribution system, and company CEO Wayne Stensby said Luma has made significant progress in stabilizing it. He noted that crews restarted four substations, some of which had been out of service since Hurricane Maria.
Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi blamed the failures on failures in the management of 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 rescind Luma’s contract.
The chairman of the power plant’s board of directors resigned last week and a new executive director, Josué Colón, has been appointed, promising to visit all production units to identify the problem.
“I recognize the critical condition they are in,” he said. “We’re not going to stop until the problem is fixed.”
Some people started hitting pots at night out of frustration in addition to organizing protests.
Among those considering joining is Carmen Cabrer, a 53-year-old asthmatic and diabetic. She was 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 makes her asthma worse. She cooks and washes clothes at irregular times, fearing another blackout.
“It turned into abuse,” she said of the outages. “I am constantly tense.
The blackouts are particularly worsened as electricity bills have increased 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 is not paid for lack of electricity. She is hesitant to work in the office because she does not 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 so I can pay the rest of the bills.
Like other Puerto Ricans, Maysonet has changed his diet, turning to canned goods, snacks and crackers that won’t spoil when the power goes out.
“Just when I’m about to cook something, the power goes out. Then it’s, ‘I guess I’m going to have another bowl of cereal,’ ”she said.
Those who can afford it are buying generators or investing in solar panels, but budgets are tight for many on an island mired in deep economic crisis and a failed government.
Even attempts to rely on other sources of energy are often frustrated.
Manuel Casellas, a lawyer who recently served as president of his 84-unit condominium complex, said the owners agreed to buy a generator over a year ago at a cost of $ 100,000. However, they first need a manager from the power company to connect the generator to the grid. He made four dates and said officials canceled them all at the last minute without explanation.
“It created a lot of embarrassment,” he said. “It’s a building with a lot of old people.”
Casellas himself has at times been unable to work at home or in the office due to power outages in both cases. If he cannot meet the clients, he is not paid. Like others, he plans to leave Puerto Rico.
“Every time the power goes out here, it hits your post-traumatic stress button,” he said, referring to the heart-wrenching experiences many had after Hurricane Maria, with around 2,975 people. died as a result. “You cannot live without electricity.