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Puerto Rico struggles to emerge from blackout as anger mounts | Nation & World

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Businesses closed. Sleepless nights. Classes cancelled. Hundreds of thousands of people across Puerto Rico were left without power on Friday, nearly two days after a fire at a main power plant triggered an island-wide outage.

Crews have restored power to some 650,000 out of nearly 1.5 million customers, but residents in several neighborhoods have complained that power has gone out again as the island struggles to recover from the blackout. electricity which also left more than 160,000 customers without water.

The blackout forced the government to cancel classes and close branches for the second day in a row in the US territory of 3.2 million people as frustration and anger boiled over.

“It’s unbearable,” said Maribel Hernández, 49, wiping her forehead with a small blue washcloth she slung over her left shoulder.

Hernández, who is recovering from cancer, sleeps on the concrete floor of the narrow outdoor patio of his house with only a sheet because his mattress does not fit. She fears being attacked because she lives in a popular neighborhood with a high crime rate, but the heat inside her house is overwhelming.

“Those with generators are fine, but what about people like us?” she said, adding that she was forced to throw away all her food.

Officials at Luma, which took over transmission and distribution from the Puerto Rico Electric Company last year, said they were unsure when power would be fully restored, but note crews have been working nonstop.

“The system is extremely fragile,” said Shay Bahramirad, vice president of engineering at Luma.

Hours later, dozens of angry protesters marched past the company’s headquarters, throwing eggs at the front door and dropping bags of room-temperature chicken, cheese and ground meat.

The company said a circuit breaker failure could have caused the outage after a fire broke out Wednesday night at the Costa Sur power plant in southern Puerto Rico, but it will be weeks before know the exact cause of the interruption.

Meanwhile, the lack of electricity has prompted at least one city to hand out food to the elderly and ice cream to those with health issues, including diabetes, as many wonder when exactly they will have to. lights again.

“I haven’t slept,” said Fernando García, a 51-year-old construction worker who is more worried about not being able to find work for the past two days given the breakdown. “I don’t have a budget at the moment.”

García stood outside a small outdoor cafeteria selling greasy eggs and turnovers known as empanadillas, grateful that the owner allowed him to charge his phone for the day as he continued to look for work.

Luma CEO Wayne Stensby called the outage “highly unusual” and said it demonstrated the fragility of Puerto Rico’s power grid, which Hurricane Maria leveled in 2017 as a powerful Category 4 storm. Emergency repairs were carried out at the time, but rebuilding efforts have yet to begin on the crumbling power grid that has caused weekly outages in dozens of communities.

Late Thursday, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had approved nearly $9.5 billion to the Puerto Rico Electric Company in September 2020 to rebuild the grid, but was not had not yet received transmission and distribution projects for construction fund evaluation and approval.

In addition, the Costa Sur generating station, one of the four main ones on the island, was damaged in a series of violent earthquakes that hit southern Puerto Rico in recent years.

Kevin Acevedo, vice president of Luma, said Friday that the company hopes to have power restored to 1 million customers by late Friday evening.

Those who regained power said they were relieved but worried about the impact of the outage on shrinking budgets already hard hit by the island’s economic crisis that has lasted for more than a decade.

Felicia Serrano, manager of a small grocery store in a community called Barrio Obrero in the capital of San Juan, said she lost $2,000 worth of goods as a result of the power outage. The store runs on a small generator that keeps the lights on but doesn’t have the power to run the large refrigerators.

“You work under a lot of stress when you don’t have light,” she said as she grabbed large bunches of green plantains and placed them on worn shelves.

Many are now worried about the state of the power grid just two months before the start of the Atlantic hurricane season.

Josué Colón, executive director of the Puerto Rico Electricity Company, said these concerns are legitimate: “It is still a system that is not in perfect condition. It is still a system that needs to be rebuilt.

The outage comes as Puerto Rico’s electric utility tries to emerge from bankruptcy and restructure some $9 billion in public debt. The company has long struggled with corruption, mismanagement and lack of investment in aging infrastructure.