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Island's power grid was shaky, then Maria hit

Ruben Vives and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- At a public housing complex just outside the tourist district in Old San Juan, residents must make their way beneath a downed electrical pole to get in the front door. Another broken power pole blocks the road outside, and a third is sprawled next to the parking lot out back.

"At Fortaleza they have light, but not here," said Rosa Rivera, 53, a retired maintenance worker, referring to the governor's official residence. Rivera was sitting outside in her wheelchair Thursday to avoid the suffocating heat inside with no air conditioning.

Angel Perez, who lives nearby in the upscale Condado neighborhood, has called the city repeatedly to find out when the power -- out across more than 95 percent of Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20 -- will be restored.

"No one has come," Perez said. "They don't pick up the phone."

Puerto Rico officials say it will likely be four to six months before power is fully restored across the U.S. territory of 3.5 million people. The island's faltering electrical grid, now crippled by the twin blows of Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, already was struggling to keep the lights on after a history of poor maintenance, poorly trained staff, allegations of corruption and crushing debt.

As recently as 2016, the island suffered a three-day, island-wide blackout as a result of a fire. A private energy consultant noted then that the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority "appears to be running on fumes, and ... desperately requires an infusion of capital -- monetary, human and intellectual -- to restore a functional utility."

 

Puerto Ricans in early 2016 were suffering power outages at rates four to five times higher than average U.S. customers, said the report from the Massachusetts-based Synapse Energy Associates.

And then came Maria.

The collapse of the power system has tumbled down the infrastructure chain, making it difficult to pump water supplies -- the water authority is one of the power authority's biggest clients -- and also to operate the cellular phone system, which also relies on the power grid.

Residents have been scrounging for scarce fuel to power generators long enough to keep refrigerators and a light or two running. At night, many drag mattresses out to balconies and porches to escape the heat. Hospitals have seen life support systems fail and most business has come to a halt.

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