Puerto Rico's leaders don't know who has power. We tried to find out
Posted November 3, 2017 11:17 a.m. EDT
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (CNN) — Towns and communities across Puerto Rico are entirely without power, more than six weeks after Hurricane Maria.
The island's leadership is touting restoration figures that show nearly 40% of electricity generation has resumed -- but it doesn't say how much of that power is actually reaching homes, schools and hospitals.
Officials from the government and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) don't even know how many people have power for lights, air conditioners, refrigerators and other basic necessities.
So, while some power plants can generate power, the ability to transmit it to homes may not be possible in some areas.
One of the union leaders for PREPA employees, Evans Castro Aponte, was hearing things were so bad he estimated just 5% of customers have electricity. That would leave 95% of the 3.4 million Americans on the island without any power unless they can run costly and loud generators that have become difficult to find on the island.
With no reliable government information, CNN tried to contact each of the 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico, which are coordinating their own recoveries.
Most calls simply did not go through. Along with so much here, communication is intermittent at best.
Some 42 of the municipalities could not be contacted.
Of the 36 towns we did reach, 10 said they had 0% power restoration. Others estimated 1, 2, 10, perhaps 20% of homes, businesses and amenities had electricity. Just four regions reported that they were more than half back on line -- Ponce and Guayanilla with 60% of residents with power; San Germán, where 75% of buildings have electricity; and Culebra -- an island off Puerto Rico that's home to just fewer than 2,000 people, where the mayor said 90% had power.
Humacao, an area where almost 54,000 live, has no power. Las Piedras, home to nearly 40,000, has no power. The same story for Loiza, where 30,000 live. And the list goes on and on, six weeks after the blackout.
Fernando Padilla, director of the project management office for PREPA, insisted to CNN they were on target with work, having exceeded the goal of 33% power generation by the end of October.
"The amount of generation restored is not directly coordinated to amount of clients, but what I can say is that the main metropolitan cities have all or most of their critical loads on," he said.
He agreed that focusing on generation, not customers with power, could be confusing, but said it was currently the most accurate measurement of progress.
Pressed on whether PREPA knows how many people on the island have electricity, he said: "At this moment, we wouldn't have a reliable amount."
He did not dispute that some communities would have "very close to zero" power, but said he remained optimistic of meeting Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's goal of 95% with power by December 15 on the way to 100% restoration.
"It's been an extreme challenge based on the devastation that Hurricane Maria brought."
The massive, long-term outages are affecting every part of life. In the capital, San Juan, many apartment blocks are still black at night apart from candles flickering in windows. Generators hum constantly, but sometimes they fail, even at fancy hotels. Restaurants and businesses remain closed.
A barber in the Condado neighborhood cuts hair outside, as he has no light or power in his shop. Even this week, CNN was unable to reach officials in this city to get their estimate on how many people have power.
Out of the city, in San Germán in the southwest, the mayor said the irony was that they'd been able to reopen some schools, but that the schools did not have power.
Orlando Cintron, spokesman in the Humacao mayor's office, said the municipality was using about 15 generators for essential services.
In Juncos, east of Puerto Rico, Mayor Alfredo Carrión said he was desperate because two major companies -- Amgen, a pharmaceutical company, and Medtronic, a medical device company -- that employ 4,000 local people cannot operate.
For ordinary people, the lack of power -- especially for those without a generator or the ability to run one -- is one long, relentless grind.
"I had no idea it would last this long," said Luis Rivera, at home in Manati, west of San Juan.
He is surviving with what looks like a light from a Christmas tree, powered by a car battery.
"It's not easy to live like this," said Rivera, who also doesn't have running water at home.
He and his wife have moved their bed to an open window to catch nighttime breezes. "I can't run a fan. It's really hot."
His nephew, Ediel Rivera, 11, said their evenings were simple, and boring.
"We stare at each others' faces or play on our cell phones if they're charged."
For some, the outage is now heading towards its third month. Hurricane Irma skirted Puerto Rico on September 6 but still knocked out some power that did not come back before Hurricane Maria smashed the island on September 20.
And there just seems to be no end in sight, no light at the end of a very long tunnel.
The power grid was old and dilapidated and in desperate need of repair even before this September's hurricanes shut it down completely.
Help took time to arrive.
Unlike when storms are heading for Florida or the Gulf or anywhere in the mainland United States, power crews were not able to wait just out of the path of the storm, to swoop in and start repairing downed lines as soon as possible.
And then some of the first crews that were brought in to fix things were linked to multimillion-dollar contracts that caused political and financial controversy. But earlier this week, Puerto Rico's governor announced that the deal would be voided.
Rosselló has now called on his counterparts in New York and Florida to send power workers. And FEMA has tasked the US Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild Puerto Rico's infrastructure.
By now, many people just want to have light at the flick of a switch, and a place to keep food cool, whichever teams of workers makes it happen.
And perhaps watch a movie, a video game or a soap opera on TV to take their minds off their problems for a while.