Restoring Power To Puerto Rico Remains A Herculean Task

Nov 21, 2017
Originally published on November 21, 2017 11:27 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Days before Thanksgiving, electric power in Puerto Rico is improving except when it is not. Last week, a high-voltage transmission line failed, and the head of Puerto Rico's public electric company recently resigned. NPR's Greg Allen has just returned from Puerto Rico and is on the line for a look at conditions there. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's gone wrong with the electricity? I'm looking at the Puerto Rico website here where they say that 46.6 percent of the people have electricity, which means most don't.

ALLEN: Right. Well, you know, it's a hard thing to restore the power there because of the problems with the terrain, the poor infrastructure and starting from scratch on an island. But the problems that there have been - not just the power failures but also somewhat political. There was that contract with Whitefish, the small Montana company.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ALLEN: That contract was canceled recently among the - amidst controversy about the cost and the political connections to the company, and that, I think, is partly why the head of the power authority, Ricardo Ramos, was resigned - forced to resign recently. He had testified before Congress. They didn't like what they were hearing on that. So the governor's appointed an interim director there, and the administration is searching for a new director.

INSKEEP: If you have interim leadership, might that slowed things down even more?

ALLEN: Possibly. There is a bit of a disorganization. There's really - down there in terms of the power restoration. There's two efforts going forward; one going forward under the power authority and one going forward under the Army Corps of Engineers. And they're working kind of in tandem but separately. The Army Corps is taking on some of the hardest work, putting things like towers up in mountains for the high-voltage transmission lines. Those are - that's work that can take like a week for a tower using helicopters. But I spent time last week with Jose Sanchez, the man directing the effort for the Army Corps of Engineers. He's somewhat more conservative than the Puerto Rico governor in the goals he's set. He thinks that they won't get to 50 percent generation till the end of the month, and it turns out he may be right, and he's saying maybe not till - 95 percent generation restored until February. The governor is thinking it could be by next month, so we'll see.

INSKEEP: What's daily life like when you get a couple months in and you still don't have electricity?

ALLEN: Well, you know, some communities are doing up surprisingly well to me - just shows you how resilient and self-reliant people in Puerto Rico are, I mean, because, you know, the infrastructure has always been somewhat dicey there. In the metro areas, you see lots of traffic on the roads, lots of activity, even despite the blackouts that we saw last week when we were there. Most communities on the island have running water now. The aqueduct authority says 90 percent of service has been restored. Things are slowest in the mountain communities, those remote areas. They were the last to receive aid, and they're still hurting, I think, many of them - but plenty of gas on the island. You see supermarkets stocked with - in the metro area certainly. But the biggest issues are still just emergency power for businesses, and many small businesses simply haven't reopened, even the San Juan area, and you wonder if they're going to ever reopen now.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen is covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. He was recently there, and Greg has also been covering a story of Haitians - Haitians who are refugees from that country who now have to go home. They had temporary protected status, meaning they could come into the United States. The Trump administration is ending that status. Who are these people, Greg?

ALLEN: Well, you're talking about a group of some 59,000 Haitians. Many live here in South Florida but, of course, many in New York and Boston and many other places in the U.S. The administration says the conditions on the ground no longer warrant them staying here. They've been - had that status since the 2010 earthquake. The administration says conditions have improved; others dispute that. And this move was signaled over the summer by the Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. He said it was going to be extended just till January. Now, we're being told it will go till July of 2019, so that's another 18 months beyond that. But at that time, the administration says, this nearly 60,000 Haitians who've been living here have to just simply go back home.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, what was their case for staying?

ALLEN: Well, that conditions have not improved on the ground enough that Haiti won't be able to absorb 59,000 people easily and that by staying here, they're actually helping the economy, helping the island, by sending remittances back. But you've got a lot of children that are part of this group, some 27,000-plus children who are U.S. citizens, so it's going to be tough to see how this is going to work out.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks as always.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Allen reporting today from Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.