With less than two months to go into the peak of hurricane season, many Puerto Ricans are concerned about the stability of the island’s power grid, a troubled system that left millions without power during Hurricane Maria .
“We all have to keep in mind that we have a very fragile power grid,” island governor Pedro Pierluisi told ABC News. Some residents are also concerned about the company that now manages the electrical distribution system, LUMA Energy.
LUMA took over the island’s transmission and distribution system on June 1, the same day the hurricane season began.
The system was previously managed by the government entity called Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which still manages power generation.
Pierluisi blamed the current problems of the electrical system on PREPA so as not to maintain the network.
“PREPA was not ensuring adequate maintenance of substations, utility poles, power lines and Luma inherited it,” he told ABC News.
1st month of LUMA
The privatization of the country’s electricity grid was announced three years ago by former governor Ricardo Rosello.
LUMA’s contract with the government was announced during the administration of his successor, Wanda Vazquez, but Pierluisi backed him once he took office in January 2021.
While blackouts and blackouts were not uncommon in parts of Puerto Rico before LUMA, some residents say conditions have worsened since the new company took control.
Sylvia Giansante, a resident of San Juan, said “power outages weren’t frequent,” but that changed last month. But “since last month,” she said, “the power goes out every two days.”
Giansante said she had three damaged air conditioning units due to the unstable power system and frequent blackouts.
Over the past month, Puerto Rico has experienced multiple power outages and a major power outage caused by an explosion at one of the island’s power substations. The Monacillo substation, where the explosion occurred, is located in San Juan and is managed by LUMA Energy.
Aside from these incidents, thousands of people on the island have reported ongoing power outages during this period, some lasting a few hours and others up to several days. âThe week of the explosion, we were without power for five days,â Giansante said.
A report from local police said the explosion at the substation was due to a failure in the electrical system. After rumors circulated that the explosion could have been triggered intentionally, federal authorities responded to the incident.
The FBI said in a statement to ABC News that its position was “one of supporting the assessment of events and related circumstances to determine whether this was the result of an accident or an act criminal â.
Although the FBI spokesperson did not confirm an investigation, he said that “the people of Puerto Rico can be assured that if evidence of criminal actions within our jurisdiction is found we will prosecute them in their full extent “.
Many islanders have opposed the takeover of LUMA since the start of the transition process. They oppose the terms of the contract with the government and some are against the privatization of essential service.
Dozens of protests have been reported across the island demanding the cancellation of the contract between the government of Puerto Rico and the company.
Residents worry during hurricane season
Karina Claudio-Betancourt lives in a community called Barrio Obrero located in Santurce, Puerto Rico. She says there was a live cable hanging on her street in early June and she called LUMA every day to report the situation.
âAt the start we made a lot of calls and no response,â said Claudio-Betancourt. “I wrote to them via Twitter and Facebook.”
LUMA’s external affairs adviser Jose Perez Velez told ABC News that the delay in responding to calls earlier this month could have been linked to a cyberattack suffered by the company in its first week, which affected its customer service.
Once Claudio-Betancourt was able to communicate with LUMA, their response was âwe’re working on it, we’re going to refer him to a supervisor,â she said.
According to the 33-year-old, it took LUMA three weeks after making its first request to remedy the situation.
With the hurricane season underway, residents say they are concerned about the company’s slow response to power outages.
“It’s scary,” said Claudio-Betancourt. “It’s really a life and death situation to lose electricity, and I don’t see them reacting quickly enough.”
An investigation by the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico indicated that most deaths from Hurricane Maria can be linked to lack of electricity.
When Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, it cut off electricity and all communications throughout the island. It took almost a year to restore electricity to the whole island. The official death toll from the storm is 2,975, according to the government of Puerto Rico.
Ahead of the start of the hurricane season this year, the Puerto Rican government held a press conference on May 26 on the contingency plan for a potential storm.
In the statement, LUMA CEO Wayne Stensby said the company stands ready to work alongside the government to deal with any potential natural disasters.
In a public motion with the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, LUMA said the company has sufficient inventory, including trucks and employees, to deal with a Category 2 storm. More details on an emergency plan were also submitted by LUMA.
“We are ready to put customers first as our obligations,” Stensby said at the May 26 press conference.
But in recent weeks, residents, including Claudio-Betancourt, said they had been told by call center workers that LUMA did not have enough equipment to deal with rural areas of the island.
Claudio-Betancourt has a residence in Las Marias, Puerto Rico, located in the central west of the island. His residence has been without electricity for weeks. She called to report the situation, but LUMA was unable to process the complaint, she said.
âThey said, ‘We don’t have enough linemen in this area.’ Then I personally went to the offices in San Sebastian and they said, ‘We don’t have the trucks to fix the electricity,’ âClaudio-Betancourt told ABC News.
LUMA representative Perez Velez reiterated that the company has the staff and tools to deal with ongoing outages.
” We are ready. We have the capacity and the people to meet the needs of our island. We’re going to deal with any possible atmospheric event in the most organized way, âhe told ABC News.
Amid the wave of complaints against the new company, Governor Pierluisi told ABC News his team spoke to LUMA Energy to make registrations and demand responses if necessary.
“We will be vigilant, we will do the surveillance, and there is a good plan in place to deal with a disaster,” Pierluisi said.
Although the governor believes that LUMA Energy has more resources than when PREPA managed the transmission and distribution of the system, he admitted that the company needed more equipment.
“They are making alliances as we speak, they are making memoranda of understanding [memorandum of understanding] with mayors to complement what they do, and they also make alliances with power companies and elsewhere in the states to help them. God forbid, we’ll have another natural disaster here in Puerto Rico, âthe governor added.
Despite LUMA’s statements and the governor’s remarks, residents remain skeptical about the stability of the island’s electricity system and the response they could get in the event of a potential emergency.
âMaria was in Category 4. What will they do if Category 4 comes in? Will they let us die? asked Claudio-Betancourt.