PONCE, Puerto Rico – Jazmín Méndez has lived much of the last year in the dark. No light to read by. No food cooled in the fridge. No television for her three children.
Work crews have repaired storm-damaged Puerto Rico’s electricity grid in fits and starts over the past 11 months, but they had never managed to light up Méndez’s mountaintop home — until this week, when she became among the last residential customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to have service restored.
“The first thing I will do is give thanks to God,” she said, sitting in her living room surrounded by beach coolers, water jugs and gas cans. “At first, I fell into a depression. Now we’ve gotten so used to it, that I’m sure if another hurricane comes, we’ll pass the test.”
It has been a long wait for Méndez, 44, who has experienced firsthand the many woes that the island’s population suffered after Hurricane Maria.
The storm washed out the pipes that brought fresh water to her home in a rural Ponce neighborhood. Her generator was stolen last year, and she did not get a new one from a local church until two weeks ago. Parts of her zinc roof blew off, and now it leaks, but problems with her deed disqualified her for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. Using rainwater out of barrels gave Méndez a waterborne kidney infection that landed her in the hospital for nearly three months.
After spending $3.2 billion, erecting some 52,000 new electrical poles and stringing 6,000 miles of wire from the federal government alone, the Puerto Rico electricity system is not in much better condition now than it was before Maria cut power to every home and business on the island.
Even as the last customers are reconnected, many billions of dollars more must still be spent to reconstruct the system and fortify the transmission lines that have been so tattered and poorly maintained that when a mishap occurs, the lights can go out on the entire island.
The new head of the electric utility estimates that up to one-quarter of the work done hurriedly to illuminate Puerto Rico after the storm will have to be redone.
“There are many patches — too many patches — developed just to bring power to the people,” said José Ortiz, the new chief executive of the power authority, known as PREPA. “Now we have to redo that thing.”
He acknowledged that repairs were stalled because the bankrupt utility’s inventory of supplies like electrical poles was too low to begin with and then was depleted by Irma, the hurricane that struck the Caribbean two weeks before Maria. He said the challenges now are to add more solar energy generation so the island will rely less on expensive oil, and to make its high-voltage transmission lines less failure-prone.