Five weeks after Maria most of Puerto Rico remains an island in the dark

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — They're still in the dark. Lady Lee Andrews doesn't know how much longer she can keep her Poet's Passage souvenir shop afloat without electricity — or tourists.

Sonia Rodriguez relies on a generator to power the elevator in her five-story assisted living center so residents can get down for their outdoor meals and some relief from the lack of air conditioning. 

More than a month after Hurricane Maria ravaged this island with 155-mph winds, three-quarters of the residents are still without power, lining up at banks for cash and gathering at shopping malls, hotels or government buildings just to charge their cellphones.

Police are directing traffic at major intersections without working traffic lights. Water plants are still out of commission, forcing people to gather water from roadside streams and then boil it to be safe from bacteria. Those without home generators are living without refrigeration, air conditioning and anything but natural light. Those with generators need to pay for gasoline or diesel fuel, and haul those volatile liquids in their cars, along with water and daily groceries.

“Nowadays businesses run with the rising sun and close as soon as whatever they have runs out, or they don’t open at all,” said Andrews, 45, as she sat in a dark hall of her shop in Old San Juan. “Now a business of my caliber, which depends on tourism, is completely affected. It's on total shutdown.”

 Even Gov. Ricardo Rosselló admits that his pledge to restore 95% of power by mid-December is “aggressive.”

The task is daunting as the Puerto Rico faces challenges not seen on the U.S. mainland after other recent storms devastated Texas and Florida. 

• The entire island lost power after the Sept. 20 Category 5 storm damaged power plants and 80% of the island’s electrical grid, which includes 2,400 miles of transmission lines and 30,000 miles of distribution lines, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

• Getting help to the island is cumbersome.  Supplies and people to fix the power problems have to travel through ports and airports that are overwhelmed by aid deliveries, building materials, bucket trucks, helicopters, and every other necessity, slowing the delivery of supplies where needed.

• Puerto Rico’s power grid, saddled with years of financial mismanagement, was already weakened because preventive maintenance and upgrades were deferred to save money.

Col. Jeff Lloyd of the Army Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico, which the federal government is relying on to help the U.S. territory restore power, would not commit to Rosselló’s mid-December timeline. The Corps has ordered $130 million worth of supplies, including 62,000 telephone poles from the U.S. mainland.

“The governor said that’s an aggressive estimate,” Lloyd said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make it possible. ... What’s going to be most challenging is the rugged terrain in restoring the grid.”

The power restoration project is focused on three tracks, giving priority to critical life-saving, health and public safety facilities.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, working with the governor’s office, has identified 537 sites for emergency power generators that are still being delivered and installed across the island.

Most generators are delivered by trucks, which are sometimes delayed by landslides, missing road signs and cellular service that would help GPS-aided navigation, said Lisa Hunter, a Army Corps spokeswoman. A recent rain storm delayed sending a generator by Chinook helicopter to a government-funded health clinic on the island of Culebra.

Larger generators have been delivered to power stations to help stabilize the grid, Lloyd said. Two General Electric mobile gas turbines that can provide at least 50 megawatts combined, roughly enough to power 50,000 homes, were delivered to the Palo Seco power plant near San Juan. Once that part of the grid is powered, workers can determine damage to distribution lines and fix them, Lloyd said.

Transmission lines that deliver electricity from major power stations are also under repair across the island. Much of that work is being done by Montana-based Whitefish Energy, which specializes in rugged, mountainous terrain.

“The interior of the country is all mountains with minimal road access,” said Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski. “This is why we use helicopters to access points.”

The company brought four helicopters to Puerto Rico, to carry workers to the tops of transmission towers and to act as sky cranes for equipment and lines. The National Guard and PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, have more helicopters to support Whitefish operations.

Techmanski said recent rains are hampering his 300 workers now on the island. Helicopters can’t be used in pouring rain. And an access road his crews built flooded a few days later.

“You can’t drive a vehicle up a road when it has 3 feet of running water on it,” Techmanski said.

And the power company will have to rebuild the smaller lines that deliver power to neighborhoods, homes and businesses.

As Puerto Rico’s electric grid is rebuilt, some planning is needed to include new technology, said Tom Lewis, president of Louis Berger, a New Jersey-based contractor helping PREPA and the Army Corps.  Solar power, wind power and smart micro grids can operate even when other sections of the grid shut down.

That would be “putting something back that is more sustainable and resilient for the next storm,” Lewis said.

He predicted that restoring 95% of the island's power will probably happen in late December or early winter.

“The last mile is always the distribution network,” Lewis said. “Whether it’s more difficult in terms of access or dollars I don’t know, but it’s certainly the last part of the process.”

In the Égida Señora Perpetuo Socorro assisted living center, the 67 residents have power from a generator for about four hours in the morning and four hours at night. That's when they have running water and an elevator, but still no air conditioning.

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They have their meals on an outdoor patio sheltered from the sun. But administrator Rodriguez points out she doesn’t always have enough money to buy diesel for the generator.

“Sadly, if there comes a time all our resources end, those with nowhere to go would have to be relocated to a shelter,” she said. But so far they have managed. “While there’s diesel there is hope.” 

Contributing: Atabey Nuñez