Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico like a hammer made of wind on September 20th. According to Enrique Mendoza, people felt like the world was coming to an end. It didn’t. I arrived with my colleague on the 70th day after the hurricane. Today, the Maria crisis has evolved from a humanitarian health emergency into an economic crisis revolving around the restoration of power.
The Puerto Rican government reports 50% of the generating power is restored. However, the “last mile” of power line that gets power from a substation to homes is generally not intact. Of the dozens of people we asked, only two had power in their homes. Our waitress at the excellent “artisinal rum and pizza” restaurant next to our hotel in San Juan lived in on the 14th floor of a high-rise. We asked if she had power in her home — she did. When we asked here she got power and she said, “Yesterday.” Before that she was walking up 14 flights of stairs every day, with no refrigeration. She had two small flashlights for light at night. She was the second person we had met that had power — the first was Enrique who got power on the day 68.
The truth is, most people in Puerto Rico don’t have power on the 71st day after the storm. There is power to gas stations, hospitals, and some part of San Juan. Sometimes shopping malls have power. Enrique, who is the Executive director of the Beltran Academy which has pupils from all over San Juan, estimates that maybe 20% of residences have power. The government is not publishing such data. Our photos suggest that outside of San Juan it is less than that, and our conversations suggest that in San Juan it is fare less than 100%. Enrique and our photos suggest that maybe one in seven homes have a generator, and if they have one it is undersized or too expensive to run. The government should be reporting the number of people who have power, but they may not know. One might ask, “Since people are billed for the power based on electric meters, how can the power company not know who is getting power?” The answer: they have quit reading meters and billing.
Today, November 30th, we drove from San Juan to Humacao, a beach town next to a huge luxury resort on the East side of the island, where the eye of Maria made landfall. Where we traveled in Puerto Rico, fewer than one in ten traffic signals are working. People drive slowly and politely, but there are more accidents than there should be when major intersections have to be treated as four-way stops negotiated by thousands of drivers. The major roads, however, are clear — huge trees have been pushed to the shoulder.
There is no power in downtown Humacao. It is not quite a ghost town, but if the people we saw in the central square had been zombies, Art and I would have stood a fighting chance. We saw generators being used for personal businesses, like barber shops.
Many of the power poles are down are badly damaged, some in imminent danger of falling further.
Here is my buddy Art under a leaning power pole.
After visiting Humacao, which is not a wealthy city, we went to the luxury resort Palmas de Mar. It is a beautiful place, and the fallen trees have been stacked in great windrows. We estimated that about 1 in 20 units (of which there are hundreds if not thousands) was occupied. It has no grid power. It does, however, have generators. Some of the smaller restaurants were open. We had a snack with the roar of generators deep in the background.
Driving back to San Juan we passed a solar farm. Renewable energy is wonderful, but not immune to hurricanes. Since the vegetation has grown up through the solar array, we assume it is not be maintained, so the lack of power has caused chaos which has led to a further lack of power in a vicious cycle.
We turned off the highway into a neighborhood with a hill. It was on PR 198, close to Las Piedras. The photos below are taken from the same spot as the sun is going down. The night time shot was a 5 second exposure made on a monopod. You may have to look closely but most of the houses have no light at all. We assume the houses with a light have a generator or a battery. Some of the lights may be headlights. We estimate that one in 7 homes have any light at all.
Here are two views from the same spot looking East. The second picture is darker (later) than it seems, it is about a 5 second exposure, making the sky seem brighter than it was.
Of course, in the states, we have power outages, especially in the Midwest and the Northeast where ice-storms and blizzards are common. One day is common, three days unusual, five days exceptional. 71 is a much bigger number than 5. Now imagine an entire population, including small businesses of every description, without power for 71 days. Today, Maria is not threatening the lives of American citizens — much. But the lack of power is directly creating an under-reported economic hardship for the American citizens of Puerto Rico. Economist scholars need to study what this costs; the rest of us need to do whatever is in our power to help Puerto Rico get the power restored — to every household — as quickly as possible.
On day 72, on our third day in Puerto Rico, we saw our first bucket-truck with electrical linemen. We chased after it and spoke to them and to the people in the neighborhood, which in Animas, a suburb of Arecibo. The lineman said 65% of that neighborhood now has grid power. Arecibo itself has power but many of the outlying communities, like this one, are being slowly restored. Progress is being made.
One visible success is Operation Blue Roof. Some members of the Army Corps of Engineers were staying in our hotel. They go into a community, assess each home for the applicability of the Blue Roof technology and program. If they greenlight a home, local contractors come in and install a “Blue Roof” — basically a very sturdy tarp on top of existing structure — to stop leaks. The Army Corps of Engineers then inspects the work and signs off on the contractors getting paid. We don’t know how sturdy these roofs are, but we certainly saw hundreds if not thousands of them on roofs from highways in Puerto Rico, and they are no doubt better than an immediate leak that lets water in your home.
But we had to wonder why there was not an army of linemen aloft restoring power. We did not meet any electrical power experts descending on Puerto Rico to put the poles back in place, and to collect the fallen wire, and to rewire the communities. I do not know what this may have to do with the Whitefish Energy controversies.
Puerto Ricans have come together — their spirit in the face of adversity reminds me of the spirit of New Yorkers after 911 or the “Boston Strong” slogan after the Marathon bombings. The Puerto Rican slogan is in Spanish: “Puerto Rico se levanta!” which I would translate as “Puerto Rico shall rise!” But don’t forget — Puerto Ricans are American citizens just like New Yorkers and Bostonians and Texans affected by hurricane Harvey. Puerto Ricans share, just like Texans — but when the whole island is affected, one community has little to share with another. Puerto Rico has weathered the loss of life cause by Maria, but time and money is being lost everyday. If this were happening in the States, it would be a hair-on-fire emergency at a national level, and we should treat it that like that now.
(This work supported by the Presidential Innovation Fellows Foundation through a grant from the Michael J. Reed and Kristin Toner Reed Foundation.)