Puerto Rico has not been hit by a hurricane this year. However, hundreds of thousands of residents feel as though they are living in the aftermath a major storm. Students do their homework in the darkness of dying cellphones. People who depend on insulin and respiratory therapies have difficulty finding power sources. The elderly are fleeing their homes in record-breaking temperatures. In recent weeks, power outages have increased in Puerto Rico with some lasting for several days. Officials blame everything from mechanical problems to seaweed for the “crass failure” of the situation, which the government says is urgently needed to be addressed. Daily outages cause traffic jams, damage expensive appliances, cancelling appointments and closing restaurants, shopping centers, schools and other businesses. One university even declared a moratorium on exam takings. Iris Santiago (48-year-old woman with chronic health issues) said that this is “hell”. She often goes outside to join her elderly neighbors when their apartment buildings go dark and the heat reaches the 90s Fahrenheit. She said that she lives in constant anxiety, just like any Puerto Rican. Every day the power goes out. Santiago was forced to throw away the milk, eggs and chicken that had spoiled in her fridge after three days without power. “Not everyone can go to a family with a generator.” Her refrigerator and air conditioner sustained damage of hundreds of dollars due to power surges, Santiago said. The Electric Power Authority of Puerto Rico, which generates electricity, and Luma (a private company that distributes power) have both blamed mechanical problems at plants that include boilers and condensers. One recent incident saw seaweed block filters and narrow pipes. Luma has also implemented selective blackouts in recent days that have affected most of its 1.5 million clients. They claim that demand is outstripping supply. Luma assumed control of transmission and distribution in June. The governor of Puerto Rico stated that the company had promised to cut power outages by 30% and reduce the duration by 40%. Since its inception, the Electric Power Authority of Puerto Rico has been plagued by mismanagement, corruption, and even bankruptcy. A fire at a power station caused an island-wide blackout in September 2016. One year later, Hurricane Maria struck as a Category 4 hurricane, destroying the power grid and leaving customers without power for up to one year. Although emergency repairs were made, reconstruction work to strengthen and rebuild the grid is still not underway. Juan Alicea, an ex-executive director of the authority, stated that “we’re on the brink of a collapse.” Three main reasons are listed by him: The authorities stopped maintaining generation units in the mistaken belief that they would soon be replaced. Numerous experienced employees have retired. Investment in infrastructure replacement has declined. Puerto Rico’s average age of its power generation units is 45 years, which is twice the age of the U.S. mainland. Luma stated that it will spend $3.85B to upgrade the transmission and distribution system. Company CEO Wayne Stensby claimed Luma had made significant progress in stabilizing it. He pointed out that crews had restarted four substations which were shut down by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico Gov. Puerto Rico Gov. Josue Colon was elected the new executive director of the power authority. He promised to visit every unit to find the root cause. He said, “I understand the dire situation that they are in.” “We won’t stop until the problem is solved.” Some have turned to protest organizing and banging pots at nights to vent their frustration. Carmen Cabrer (53 years old, asthmatic, and diabetic) is one of those who will be joining the protest. Due to her inability to use her nebulizer, she had to give out insulin due to lack of refrigeration. She is forced to open her windows because of the heat. This causes her asthma to worsen. Fearing that the power would go out again, she cooks and washes her clothes at different times. She said that the outages have become an abuse. “I’m always tense.” Because power bills have been increasing and the pandemic forced many people to study or work from home, outages can be particularly aggravating. Barbra Maysonet (30 years old) is a call center operator who works remotely. She said that she loses entire shifts and doesn’t get paid for power outages. She is hesitant about working in the office as she doesn’t want COVID-19 to be exposed to her grandmother and mother. She said, “It really puts an dent in my paycheck.” “I need to think about things. “I’m going to have risk my health in order to pay the remaining bills.” Maysonet, like other Puerto Ricans has changed her diet and now eats canned goods, snacks, and crackers that won’t spoil in the event of a power outage. “Just as I’m about cooking something, the power goes off. She said, “I guess I’m having another bowl, then.” While those who have the money can buy generators and invest in solar panels, many people on an island in deep economic crisis are struggling to make ends meet. Sometimes, even attempts to rely upon alternate energy sources are often unsuccessful. Manuel Casellas is an attorney who was recently the president of his condominium complex of 84 units. He said that the owners had agreed to purchase a generator over a year ago for $100,000. They will need to get an official from the power company to connect the generator to grid. He said he had made four appointments and that officials cancelled them all at the very last moment without giving any explanation. He said that “this has caused great irritation.” “This building is home to many elderly people.” Casellas has sometimes been unable work from his office or at home due to power outages. He doesn’t get paid if he is unable to meet clients. He is also considering moving to Puerto Rico, as he has done with others. He said that “Everytime the power goes out here, it pushes you post-traumatic stress button.” This was in reference to the horrendous experiences many had after Hurricane Maria. An estimated 2,975 people died. You can’t survive without electricity.
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