About a third of Puerto Rico's residents — over 900,000 — are
still living without electricity five months after Hurricane
Maria battered the island on Sept. 20th of last year.
As power restoration efforts continue against all odds, it's
still hard for officials to say when the power will be fully
restored — the question on everyone's mind.
“I would hesitate to give you a date,” said Lt. Col. John
Cunningham of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the deputy
commander for the Task Force Power Restoration on the island.
“We would like to go faster, but right now we’re going as fast
as we can.”
“The largest challenge has been logistics: getting the materials
we need,” Cunningham told NBC News. “Because it is a tropical
island, they need specific conductors and materials that can
resist the tropical weather and there’s a limited number of
suppliers available to purchase specific materials for the
After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, getting access to those
materials is even harder.
About 1,200 temporary generators and seven microgrids are
powering key areas near important buildings such as schools and
hospitals. In addition, teams from utility companies from the
mainland U.S. have made their way to Puerto Rico to support
personnel sent to the island to help restore power.
After Hurricane Maria left the entire island without power, the
Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, needed at least
about 53,000 poles, a little over 17 million conductors and
So far, 5,072 transformers have arrived in Puerto Rico in
addition to about 31,500 poles and about 2,613 miles of
conductor cables already on the island, PREPA said in a
In the next two weeks, Puerto Rico should receive 80 containers
with additional equipment.
RESTORING POWER AMID FUNDING WOES
One of the reasons for a lack of inventory in the first place is
PREPA's financial woes. While a Category 5 hurricane like Maria
was expected to cause massive damage, Puerto Rico's bankrupt and
greatly indebted public utility had not kept up with upgrading
and modernizing its four-decade-old power plants, which mostly
produce energy from burning imported oil.
Puerto Rican government leaders went to federal court in New
York on Thursday to request a $1 billion emergency loan to
finance operational costs and avoid running out of cash. Though
the request was not approved, U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor
Swain gave Puerto Rico’s lawyers the chance to submit another
motion for a $300 million emergency loan, understanding that
“the lights cannot go off in Puerto Rico.” The motion was filed
early Friday and Judge Swain approved it on Monday.
To reduce costs and avoid a shutdown, Puerto Rico has activated
a contingency plan that consists of reducing power to energy
reserves that handle generation failures like the one that took
place on Feb. 12 in northern Puerto Rico. Government officials
said Sunday it should not affect customers.
PREPA is currently the government agency with the biggest share
of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion public debt. In part, PREPA’s $9
billion debt is due to unpaid electricity bills from public
entities in Puerto Rico.
Liquidity issues around Puerto Rico's power company go back
decades. Through Puerto Rico's fiscal agency AAFAF, most PREPA
projects get funded through the issuance of bonds.
Critics say past projects illustrate a history of costly
Francisco Lopez, an engineer and PREPA employee for 36 years and
now an independent energy consultant, had pitched a project in
2010 called Via Verde that consisted of a natural gas pipeline
across the island.
Because the governor at the time, Luis Fortuño, had signed an
executive order declaring a “state of emergency" around electric
power generation, the project was approved and bonds were issued
before any public hearings.
Photos: 100 days in the dark leave Puerto Ricans with glimmer of
PREPA had done a study that showed that revenues from Via Verde
would be enough to pay back bondholders. “It would have taken,
like, five years," said Lopez.
But the $350 million Via Verde project never came to life after
strong opposition from community members and environmentalists.
With no project, there was no revenue, but PREPA still had to
pay bondholders back as well as the already-hired contractors.
Lopez said situations like this have contributed to the
AMID CRITICISM, A PROMISE TO RESTORE POWER
As PREPA grapples with financial issues, it has also faced
strong questions about its actions following the hurricane.
A former supervisor and chemist at PREPA, Carlos Velez, was
critical of the government's initial handling of its equipment
and restoration needs.
Related: FEMA under scrutiny over botched contract to provide
meals for Puerto Rico
“In a situation where PREPA lacks inventory, the usual procedure
is to ask the American Public Power Association (APPA) for
what’s needed,” said Velez. APPA is a not-for-profit
organization that serves U.S. public utilities; it has worked
with PREPA on previous post-hurricane efforts.
Instead, PREPA came under fire after signing a $300 million
contract with Whitefish, a small Montana-based firm. The
contract was eventually terminated after questions emerged
following a Washington Post report about the company and the
It wasn’t until the end of October, more than a month after the
hurricane, that APPA received Puerto Rico’s petition asking for
help. It still remains unclear why APPA’s help was requested so
FEMA deputy administrator Ahsha Tribble, who has been working on
the island for months, said in an Oversight Board hearing that
PREPA's bureaucracy has slowed down restoration efforts. “When
you have eight layers of approval to get something done, it’s
not working for us,” said Tribble.
PREPA has also been dealing with changing leadership. In
November, its executive director Ricardo Ramos stepped down and
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló called for Justo Gonzalez’s appointment as
“When you put an interim director in the middle of a disaster,
it’s hard. It’s very difficult to begin to make decisions,” said
The spotlight on PREPA after the devastating storm and the
financial crisis may result in significant changes. Gov.
Rosselló announced a plan last month to move toward privatizing
the utility, pledging a more "financially viable," consumer-
While there is debate over the plan, consumer watchdogs and
analysts have long called for changes to PREPA. In addition, the
utility's finances and debt are now being scrutinized by a
financial oversight board started under President Barack Obama
as well as Judge Swain.
In the meantime, the start of the next hurricane season is just
four months away.
"I want to assure all clients still without electricity, that we
have you in mind. We know our work is not over and we are
prioritizing restoration for this population,” said Justo
Gonzalez, PREPA’s interim director, in a statement. “No one
deserves to be without electricity, so we appreciate your