Puerto Ricans Turn to the Black Market for Power After Hurricane Irma

Without a decade of maintenance, the grid failed despite only a brush with the storm. People are resorting to illegal linemen and shopping malls for juice.

Ricardo Arduengo/Getty

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — More and more people are losing patience with Puerto Rico's Power Authority more than a week after Hurricane Irma knocked out electricity across the island. 

About 80,000 of the island’s customers are still without electricity, according the power authority, PREPA. Earlier this week it was 200,000, according to PREPA's executive director Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez. People are so desperate for electricity that they’ve gone to shopping malls for refuge and resorted to black-market electricians. It’s all the result of an electrical grid that has had little maintenance in the past decade as Puerto Rico drifted towards bankruptcy.

"We have definitely seen an increase of visitors wandering, not shopping, but taking advantage of the free wi-fi, and others surprisingly come to self-medicate," said a security guard who estimated the number of visitors to be as many as 100 during lunch hour.

Brunilda Torres is one of them. The 62-year old woman has been coming to the mall for the past five days straight with her portable nebulizer machine to treat her asthma. 

"I don't believe a word anyone in the Power Authority says about the estimated time this will take. The situation has gone for far too long and now I have to move out of town," Torres said while untangling an extension cord to charge her phone and other electronic devices. 

Other residents who live far from the coast have fallen into despair. As days go by, they feel overwhelmed as power has not been restored and think that the mayor has a say in this situation. 

“People have alleged that I have control on deciding who gets their power back first and whatnot," said Julia Nazario, the mayor of Loíza, to a local newspaper. 

The town is located on the east part of the island, just 40 minutes from San Juan, and was declared a disaster zone.

The level of desperation on the streets has reached a point where some residents are willing to pay more than $400 to have their power restored by retired electrical engineers who are posing as PREPA's personnel. 

"On Wednesday, a group of men in black vans came to our house offering us to reestablish our electricity,” José Pérez, a resident of Arecibo, told The Daily Beast. “Since our house is across the street from the other complex who have power, all they had to do was connect our house to one of those utility poles." 

Pérez said he has been in conversations with the men, but he has neither confirmed nor denied he paid anyone to have his power restored. Out of all the houses in the block, the Pérez house was the only one lit during the night.

Ramos Rodríguez of PREPA told residents not to fall for the scheme, adding it endangers the security of his employees and the lives of customers. 

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"We request that no one hires anyone to restore the electric service in their communities. The only personnel trained and specialized to carry out these reconnections work is those properly identified employees of PREPA," he said.

Although he didn't offer the exact number of incidents on the matter, Ramos Rodríguez told The Daily Beast the impostors often use unreliable tools, including some made of bamboo. 

"I said it when I took on this role and I keep on saying it: the system was really vulnerable and the system is still in terrible conditions," he said.

With demand so high, Ramos Rodríguez announced that PREPA was hiring secondary personnel to assist, which drew a strike threat from the electricity union. The word of a possible strike by the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union caused a woman to interrupt a television broadcast with UTIER’s president, Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo.

"Why did you give your workers instructions to that after private companies come in, you guys would stop working?" the woman said. “We have been without power for 8 days, you clearly need more hands, there's no need to be holding back now.”

Jaramillo shot back: "What we have said is that we cannot work together because they do not have the training and certifications to work, and it jeopardizes our lives.”

“It’s time to show your customers how valuable you are,” the woman retorted. “Stop it with the excuses, especially in such a timeline."