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6 Months After Hurricanes, 11 Percent Of Puerto Rico Is Still Without Power


In Puerto Rico, roughly 150,000 homes and businesses are still waiting for electricity. That's 11 percent of the island's customers. Many have been waiting since before Hurricane Maria, when Hurricane Irma grazed the island six months ago this week. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Electricity please, enough already, help us - those are the messages that you find on signs taped and tacked to utility poles in Barrio Borinquen, a mountainous community in the municipality of Caguas. Drive high enough up the mountain, and you reach a plateau. That's where community leader Jose Oyola was waiting for me just before sunset. He pointed to the hundreds of houses dotting the valley and hillsides below, all dark except the ones with generators.

JOSE OYOLA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "What hurricane Irma didn't destroy, Maria came and finished off," he says.

OYOLA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He can't believe it's been six months. It's like, "can this be real," he asks. "But it is. We're living it." Oyola is angry. He says almost as bad as not having power is not knowing when it'll come back. He and neighbors have repeatedly sought answers from the power utility and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading Puerto Rico's power restoration effort. They haven't gotten much of a response.

OYOLA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He says, "if I know this is going to go on for a specific period of time, I can at least make a plan. I can leave the island or move somewhere else." Frustration and anger permeate many of the mountainous communities still waiting for power in Puerto Rico. There's also a sense of helplessness driven in part by the lack of information. Each day, an AM radio station hosts an hour-long show. Special coverage, they call it - just one person after another dialing in to voice their despair.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "The other day there was a crew working nearby," this caller says, "but they didn't come to my street, and I don't know why. No one will tell us anything, not even the mayor." The island's mayors say that's because the Army Corps of Engineers is keeping them in the dark. Last week, Governor Ricardo Rossello gathered dozens of mayors and called in the Army Corps.


RICARDO ROSSELLO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I've demanded that the Army Corps assign each of the mayors their own point of contact," the governor said. The second in command in the Army Corps' power restoration effort here is Lieutenant Colonel John Cunningham.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL JOHN CUNNINGHAM: I believe that we will have those clear and effective lines of communications established in the very near term.

FLORIDO: He said it's hard to provide precise information about which crews will be working where and when. The work has become less predictable now that mostly mountainous areas remain.

CUNNINGHAM: All the low-hanging fruit has been, you know, frankly, accomplished at this point. We're down to the very, very challenging terrain, and the lines are very, very long spans. It's requiring helicopters and then a lot of manual work.


UNIDENTIFIED LINEMAN: I need one more number one.

FLORIDO: On my way down from Barrio Borinquen, I ran into a couple of linemen here from Denver. John Davis and Dean Breidenbach were working in the rain, repairing a transformer. Breidenbach said on that day, their 24-person crew had restored power to about 30 homes.

DEAN BREIDENBACH: The fact that all the vines have grown over stuff for six months now - all our wire's under that.

FLORIDO: So it's really, really - it's, like, painstakingly slow.

BREIDENBACH: It's five times harder than normal in the United States doing the same job because of the terrain.

FLORIDO: Breidenbach heads home next week. Many mainland line workers will be leaving soon as their contracts with the Army Corps expire. Lieutenant Colonel John Cunningham says workers contracted by the Army Corps will be here through March.

CUNNINGHAM: We want to see the work finished. And all of us do, but we've come to really trust our partners here.

FLORIDO: Once the Army Corps' crews leave, the Puerto Rican government will take over full responsibility for what remains of the restoration effort. They hope to be done before the next hurricane season begins in less than three months. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Caguas, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE "SOL LUNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a reporter for NPR's Code Switch team, where he's covered race, identity and culture since 2015.
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