Last year on Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma barreled across Puerto Rico, significantly weakening the island’s power grid and knocking out power for more than a million customers.
In the two weeks following, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) worked to restore power.
Mireya Rodriguez Fernandez, a senior project manager at PREPA, said Puerto Rico was doing well after Irma. The emergency reserves were fully stocked and sufficient to handle the damage.
Then came Maria.
The powerful Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds up to 154 mph made landfall in Yabucoa, destroying the existing power system and causing an islandwide blackout.
“It collapsed 100 percent,” said Carlos Acevedo, director of the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency. “The electric power system of Puerto Rico is in the air – there is very little of it that is buried — so it is a system that is very vulnerable, a system that is very old.”
PREPA’s 1.47 million customers had to quickly adjust to life in the darkness.
In the Ingenio neighborhood of Toa Baja, Maria Gonzalez and Victor Cartagena went six months without power — until their prayers were answered in March.
About 40 miles to the southeast, in the mountains of Yabucoa, it wasn’t until Father’s Day that Ana Rodriguez and her husband, Marcelino Burgos, had light past sunset.
But for Jose Saldaña, who goes by “Tonty,” the wait for electricity was just shy of a year. He lost power before Hurricane Irma and he counted 11 months and 19 days until he had it again.
That extended period of time without power nearly bankrupted him. He spent all of his life savings to survive after Maria.
“Among all the expenses of generators — diesel, oil, air filter, diesel filter, oil filter — I have spent $60,000,” said Saldaña, noting that he’s now on his seventh generator. “That had been part of my retirement that I had… now I have to keep working.”
Saldaña operates a family-owned souvenir shop in El Yunque National Forest and lives with his wife, Carmen Roldán, in the home above it. His three grandchildren, ages 6, 9 and 13, often spend nights in his home of 38 years as well.
“They stay with me even in the darkness,” Saldaña said. At night, he turns off the generator, meaning they cannot open the fridge, watch television, turn on the lights or close the windows. A collection of solar-powered lamps helps guide his family through the darkness.
During the day, the generator hums loudly on the roof of his business, and Saldaña or his son look for fuel.
“From here to town it’s 15 minutes in a vehicle and in my own van I sometimes put 10 containers to bring diesel,” Saldaña said. “The most difficult part of living here is the way in which fuel is sought in order to keep the generators working.”
On Aug. 14, PREPA announced on Twitter that it had restored power to the southern city of Ponce — to the last customers who had been living without power since the hurricane.
But two days later, Saldaña said he was still living in the dark because of an ongoing disagreement between PREPA and the U.S. Forest Service on where to put new power poles.
“I feel disappointed,” Saldaña said. “The governor of Puerto Rico said that Puerto Rico is 100% energized … I pay business taxes to the government of Puerto Rico, and I haven’t had service since before Irma.”
On Aug. 24, a week after WUFT spoke with Saldaña, the dispute was settled and his power was finally restored. But the memories of living in the darkness are still with him.
“I didn’t have help from anyone. No one, no one,” Saldaña said. “Only my family helped me.”
Puerto Rico officials say they recognize the need to prevent situations like Saldaña’s from happening again. In a draft recovery plan submitted on July 9 to the U.S. Congress, they proposed a $22 billion “build back better” energy initiative to strengthen the power system.
“Another storm is likely to hit, so we better be very resilient about it,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said about improving the island’s electric power system. “A lot of money is coming to Puerto Rico, and we’re committed to investing in that effort.”
Officials from PREPA are hopeful about those investments.
“We are at a time when the situation of the emergency has given us an opportunity to have funds available to do something that we might not have had the opportunity to do in many years,” Mireya Rodriguez said.
The investments in energy would include establishing and enforcing energy grid best practices, localizing portions of the grid and building a supporting infrastructure, as well as 36 other initiatives, according to the draft recovery plan.
The idea, according to the governor, is that this new system would be able to survive the impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane like Maria.
“We were really not prepared for a Category 5 or Category 4 hurricane,” Gov. Rosselló said. “So our effort right now is to plan for what we conceive as the worst-case scenario so that we can respond in kind.” He added he is “confident” they’ll be prepared for that level with the new plans.
But as the 2018 hurricane season comes to an end, construction on a stronger grid hasn’t started — and people like Saldaña are worried they’ll be forgotten again.
“[Gov. Rosselló] has not visited the town of Rio Grande since the hurricane,” Saldaña said. “He (has) air conditioning, he has electricity, he has all his means — and we are without light.”
The island’s emergency management office said Saldaña and the rest of the residents need to be patient.
“We have to take a system that we have one way and change it completely,” Acevedo said. “It is a project that does not change overnight.”