The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two major power outages in a week fuel fear in Puerto Rico — and memories of Hurricane Maria

Hundreds of thousands of people lost power across Puerto Rico on June 10 after a fire at an electrical substation. (Video: TDeChoudens via Storyful)
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As Gustavo Irizarry walked the dark streets of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, he thought of the wife and children he was forced to leave at 3 a.m. to turn on his pizza restaurant’s generator.

Across the island, nearly 1 million people were left in the dark after a fire broke out at the Monacillos electrical substation on June 10 — the first of two massive power outages to hit Puerto Rico in the span of a week, sparking anger at the island’s new private utility operator and rekindling fears of a prolonged blackout.

Irizarry worried for his safety as he hurried through his hometown — known as the “city of the sleeping giant” in reference to the rolling mountains nearby — while also fretting over food left in the fridge and the growing list of appliances lost to unexpected voltage changes.

“We’re already running out of resources to be able to continue producing, and it’s going to unleash a chain of problems,” he said. “The cost of all products has increased due to the pandemic. Now, without electricity, costs are going to increase even more.”

Nearly four years after Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, leaving some in the dark for almost a year, frustration over the island’s still-fragile power supply is mounting. Many are turning their anger toward LUMA Energy, the consortium between North American companies Atco and Quanta Services that took over Puerto Rico’s power transmission and distribution system earlier this month.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi has asked citizens to give the company time to adjust, but for residents like Irizarry, the recent blackouts are a stark reminder that Puerto Rico remains vastly unprepared for another major storm as hurricane season gets underway. Many are now scurrying to purchase diesel, generators and control transformers after a second outage Wednesday left 347,616 people without power.

LUMA did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Washington Post, but José Pérez Vélez, LUMA’s external affairs adviser, told El Nuevo Día that the company had inherited a frail system and that its daily breakdowns stem from the network’s “advanced deterioration.”

Impatient and upset, many Puerto Ricans have flooded social media to express their anger. Community organizations, labor unions and civil-society members held a small protest Friday to demand the cancellation of LUMA’s contract.

Irizarry said the latest electrical woes have made him feel forgotten. The outages have reduced the hours his business is able to operate. The unreliable electricity damaged the freezer where he stored pizza ingredients.

“The government should have consulted with citizens and small-business owners on how it was going to make this transition,” Irizarry said. “Neither the governor nor LUMA listens to us, and I feel marginalized. I want to provide a service. I want to give my best for the country, but if they don’t listen to us, I can’t.”

Hurricane Maria’s ravaging winds severely weakened Puerto Rico’s already outdated energy infrastructure when it struck the island in September 2017. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the government-owned company tasked with generating, transmitting and distributing electricity, struggled in the aftermath to provide reliable service, having essentially filed for bankruptcy even before the storm.

With Puerto Ricans simultaneously facing habitual outages and expensive energy costs, the government awarded LUMA a 15-year contract to streamline the island’s power grid. Its mission statement: “To provide reliable electrical energy and transform the system that illuminates … every corner of Puerto Rico.”

LUMA billed Puerto Rico’s government $159 million during the year-long preparation period before formally beginning to operate the network, which represented a 20.2 percent increase from the projected billing amount, according to NotiCel, an island digital-media outlet.

Arturo Massol-Deyá, executive director of Casa Pueblo, a project seeking to provide communities with solar energy, said the island is facing an energy situation akin to what it has experienced after being hit by natural disasters. He said despite the preexisting challenges, LUMA isn’t devoid of responsibility.

“We are talking about scenarios where voltage changes have been dramatic and they have destroyed medical equipment and burned down houses,” he said. “The Monacillos explosion — the nucleus of the energy distribution system — is like a culmination of the technical incompetence of this company.”

Several municipal mayors have declared states of emergency, citing inconsistent electricity since LUMA took over.

Though LUMA released a statement asking municipal authorities to refrain from resolving energy issues on their own, Aguadilla’s mayor, Julio Roldán, decided to take matters into his own hands after some of his constituents reported up to 11 consecutive days without power. In an interview with Telemundo, Roldán said he will utilize $200,000 to send linemen brigades to make repairs and will provide affected residents with $100 to $200 to replace damaged food and medicines.

“Here, we the mayors, we’re the ones battling. We are the line of defense for our communities,” Roldán said. “Without a doubt this has been a complete disorganization, a total failure of the central government in terms of the LUMA decision.”

On Thursday morning, Yvonne Santiago, a San Juan-based graphic illustrator, woke up to the sound of her air conditioning suddenly shutting down.

Almost automatically she reached over to turn on the battery-powered fan she bought after Hurricane Maria left her in the dark for months. Part of her was eerily accustomed to Puerto Rico’s blackouts; but she also grew anxious thinking about what would happen if another storm struck the island.

“We have Hurricane Maria PTSD,” or post-traumatic stress disorder, Santiago said. “These past massive outages have given me flashbacks from Maria, and I feel like I’m living through it again — sitting at home unable to work, not eating because I’m afraid of spoiling the food inside the fridge.”

With hurricane season already underway, Santiago panics over what could happen to the power grid.

“I try not to think about it because I cry and get anxiety attacks, but, if we get hit by a hurricane as bad as Maria, it will take us so far back that we’ll be able to see Christopher Columbus’s ships,” she said.

According to the emergency response plan LUMA submitted to the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, the company has the necessary staffing and resources to respond to a Category 2 hurricane. It also indicated that it has signed two mutual aid agreements in case the island is hit by a stronger storm. However, with the prospect of an active hurricane season looming, some are not so optimistic about the future.

“We don’t know if we’re ready,” Massol-Deyá said. “We have this huge, widespread anxiety. I mean, when Maria hit, more than 3,000 people died, partly due to the collapse of the electrical system — imagine what would happen if we’re actually not prepared.”