DARK

93 Days Later, Puerto Rico Can’t Get Supplies to Turn on the Power

The goal was power by Christmas. Now it’s been pushed to March, because even the Army can’t get what it needs.

Alvin Baez/Reuters

MOROVIS, Puerto Rico—The loud buzzing of portable gasoline electric generators has become the norm in this central mountainous region of the battered territory.

It’s been that way for more than three months, ever since Hurricane Maria knocked out 100 percent of electricity on the island of 3.4 million people. Today almost half the island is without power. It’s the longest blackout in American history and will not be over soon because of a shortage of supplies to fix the electrical grid.

“The materials are arriving but at a really slow pace. Sadly, we are hardly working,” said a lineman who preferred not to be identified. “In the meantime, we try to reuse whatever materials that can be found onsite which are rusty and unreliable.”

The lineman is one of about 27,000 other workers who were brought in from the mainland to help restore the power grid. Without supplies though, repair brigades are seen roaming the streets without much to do.

“I can count with one hand the times we’ve seen brigades work in our streets,” said Carmen Maldonado, mayor of Morovis, a municipality of 33,000 people. “The economy has plummeted, our elders are in need of medical care, and schools are barely operating.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of restoring electricity, but it claims it is hampered by a lack of supplies. “Puerto Rico is competing for supplies with Texas and Florida, whose electrical grids were similarly ravaged by hurricanes,” said Army Corps spokesman Luciano Riviera.

Only 9,100 transmission posts out of the 52,000 needed have arrived so far, Rivera said. The most recent shipment came last week, he said, adding that 8,100 posts are scheduled to arrive every two weeks starting next week.  

That means all the necessary supplies to restore power won’t arrive until March.

Maldonado’s hopes were set on Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s goal to restore power to 95 percent of the commonwealth by the Dec. 15, a goal that was not met. Power generation on the island is at 65 percent. This does not mean 65 percent of the island has electricity as the transmission lines that supply generation to people's homes have not been restored due to the lack of materials and terrain challenges.

Municipalities such as Maunabo, Yabucoa, and Naguabo are also left completely pitch black every night as they remain without any energy.

“My people are the verge of a collapse,” said Aguas Buenas Mayor Javier Garcia. The municipality has about 28,000 inhabitants and the only facilities energized are the police headquarters, fire department, and a hospital.

“We are simply forgotten,” Garcia said, adding that the system is so fragile they decided to ditch the energy provided by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, and rely on power generators.

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“I don’t know who to trust anymore. Week after week, [PREPA and the Army Corps] say that they will send brigades our way but they never show up. We have not seen a single brigade in the past 93 days,” Garcia said, adding that he’s never felt so helpless in his life, seeing as locals have ran out of money to buy fuel for their generators.

Garcia’s cry for help comes at a time when the Army Corps, which is leading the federal power restoration on the island, reported that recovery efforts are more advanced in the U.S. Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico.

The Army Corps revealed that it has only completed 34 percent of the awnings needed to temporarily repair homes in Puerto Rico, in contrast to the Virgin Islands, where it has achieved 100 percent.

In addition, the Army Corps said it’s reached 99 percent of the installation of the portable power generators needed to power critical areas in the Virgin Islands; in Puerto Rico, it stands at 76 percent.