OROCOVIS — In the Bauta Abajo sector in Orocovis, in the central mountainous region, there are no power lines or poles on the ground. But 12 days after Hurricane Fiona, which produced devastating floods in southwestern Puerto Rico on September 18, the 1,308 people who live in this neighborhood are battling a storm of isolation and lack of electricity.
It is five minutes to two in the afternoon of the first Saturday in October and the noise of a small 2,000-watt power generator forces Doña Plácedes Virgen Collazo Colón to raise her voice over that noise. She is 71 years old; she is a morbidly obese patient, and she asks her husband to help her get a small container where her medicines are.
The movement, in theory, is easy. A short turn to her right, where the small wooden table is. But Doña Plácedes struggles with intense and constant pain in her body. Her swollen legs hardly support her anymore and, without water and electricity, her skin sores have multiplied because of a lack of medical attention.
The Orocovis native can barely move from the adjustable chair — powered by electricity — where she is sitting in the middle of the room. Thanks to the small power plant that is on the house’s balcony, she adjusts her position when she gets tired. She spends the hours wrapped in sheets on the chair, from five in the morning until nightfall. She cannot move anywhere else in the house without the support of one or more people. She has already fallen several times trying.
“My family helps me,” says Plácedes, who is deaf in her left ear. “But [the situation] is tough. And it has gotten worse. Every day it’s worse because there’s no electricity and I depend on it.”
A homecare aid would come to help her until a few days ago, but she hasn’t returned since the power and water went out.
“She came, she helped me. But she stopped coming,” said Plácedes.
Bauta Abajo is the largest of the 17 sectors in Orocovis and the median age of its residents is 53, one of the highest in this municipality. Sixty-one percent of families here live below the poverty line and the median annual family income is $11,536. That number is below the median annual family income for Orocovis, which is $16,511, and as a municipality it is well below the median for Puerto Rico, which is $24,979.
This is one of the eight sectors in this municipality that has zero percent electricity service, the municipal administration said. Twelve days after Hurricane Fiona, only 9,445 residents of the 20,982 in Orocovis had electricity in their homes, Mayor Jesús Colón Berlingeri informed in a letter sent to Luma Energy President, Wayne Stensby, and to the executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), Josué Colón.
“Keeping 11,537 Orocoveños without electric power service 12 days after Hurricane Fiona hit is indefensible and puts them in a precarious and highly vulnerable situation, most of them being low-income people, many of them elderly or in poor health,” according to the letter dated September 30.
In a written statement, 19 days after Fiona passed, Colón Berlingeri reacted again to the total disconnection of LUMA’s service in three sectors of his municipality, including Bauta Abajo.
“They say that [the brigades] are there, but they don’t show up,” said the municipal executive. The veteran New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) mayor stressed that the company’s communication with him has been “terrible.”
According to LUMA Energy’s 2022 Emergency Response Plan Restoration Protocol (ERP), the private company, which is responsible for the transmission and distribution of the energy network, had to keep the Puerto Rico Emergency Management and Disaster Administration Bureau (NMEAD, in Spanish) informed of its work schedule to restore electrical service.
The document also says that LUMA was to provide “hourly real-time information to customers based on important outage metrics.” This information to the customers would be offered through its website, its phone app, social networks, the media, and on the map, to report interruptions that are supposed to remain active on the LUMA website.
Although the ERP states that this map should reflect by region or city the clients served and affected, the reality is that it was not and is not working. Instead, there is a post from 19 days ago on the LUMA website that says, “the current weather conditions are extremely dangerous and are hampering our ability to fully assess the situation.” There is only a generic map on their page that gives general data about the regions, not by town or sector.
The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) asked NMEAD Interim Commissioner Nino Correa to confirm whether LUMA complied with giving detailed daily updates by sectors and neighborhoods as it restored service in the municipalities and the number of customers in those areas. The CPI also asked whether the company informed him daily of the exact places where its brigades were, the number of brigades, the number of workers per brigade, and the places assigned to each brigade.
The NMEAD did not answer the questions, which were submitted for two days. The Bureau neither provided the CPI any document that certifies the details of the work done and recovery updates that LUMA had provided if any. LUMA did not respond to the same questions either.
The ERP 2022 also says that LUMA must submit updates to local emergency managers, or the person designated by the municipal government and provide them with “detailed information related to emergency conditions and restoration performance for each affected municipality.”
Mayors’ Federation President Gabriel Hernández Rodríguez, and the president of the Mayors Association, Luis Javier Hernández Ortiz, said LUMA failed to comply with that part of the ERP.
“We brought this situation to LUMA Energy’s top management, when we held a Zoom meeting three or four days after the hurricane, in which the Governor’s Chief of Staff [Noelia García] participated,” said the president of the (Federation) organization that groups PNP mayors.
Hernández Rodríguez, the mayor of Camuy, said that during a meeting in his town before the hurricane, Stensby promised that, in emergency situations, he would designate a contact person from the company for each municipality. The same was said by Hernández Rodríguez, mayor of Villalba.
“They promised that there would be someone in each of the municipal COE [Emergency Operations Centers] to help and give us that information,” said the leader of the Mayors Association. “These LUMA people failed on the response.”
The Camuy mayor said although LUMA’s president made the offer personally, he does not expect for there to be a person assigned to each town, but rather a LUMA contact who handles a certain number of adjacent municipalities, visits them during the emergency and continues to offer information and collect data from mayors or municipal emergency management directors.
“LUMA’s senior management has to improve communication with the municipalities and with the mayors,” said Hernández Rodríguez. “The mayors don’t have to be begging to be told where the brigades are, what the plan will be, because, at the end of the day, the peculiarity of Puerto Ricans is that they will always turn to the mayor and with LUMA, that has been quite uphill,” he added.
The Mayors Federation president insisted that “from an office desk in San Juan they want to decide what’s urgent and what’s essential in getting energized and that, sometimes, isn’t necessarily what the municipality sees as a priority.”
In a separate interview, the mayor of Villalba said “basic services are channeled with the mayors because in an emergency we’re the incidental commanders of the situation. We’re on the street and we know exactly which areas need to be energized and which areas aren’t a priority.” However, he criticized that the company chose “to get defensive” with the mayors.
Hernández Ortiz said that, as president of the Mayors Association, he will request an investigation to establish whether LUMA complied not only with its own emergency plan but also with that of the government of Puerto Rico, including detailed information on the number of brigades it activated and the number of employees per brigade.
The lack of reliable information from LUMA has angered several mayors such as Peñuelas Mayor Gregory Gonsález Souchet, who staged a protest in front of LUMA’s regional office in Yauco.
Meanwhile, the residents of Villa Blanca in Caguas posted photos on social networks showing moments when they took to the streets in protest and forced trucks driven by LUMA employees to reach their community. Residents of Aguas Buenas got tired of waiting for LUMA.
On a street in the Sonadora sector in Aguas Buenas, it took eight days for power service to be restored after Hurricane Fiona, but only a minute for the area to go dark again.
On Monday, September 26, LUMA Energy consortium personnel arrived in this rural sector, and although they did the work to restore energy to the community, the cables were left on the ground where the lamp posts are at kilometer 0.0 of the PR-792 road. The power restoration caused a fire, and in the blink of an eye, a sector located at the limit between the Sonadora and Jagüeyes neighborhoods was left without essential service again.
“Those people [LUMA] almost killed us,” an area resident who preferred to remain anonymous told the CPI.
LUMA’s action led the neighbors to file an emergency complaint on the company’s website. Consortium personnel arrived the following day but did not properly handle the problem of the loose cables. They just wrapped them like a braid around a lamppost and left. The street and its houses were still without electrical service.
“What they did was stick the braid on the pole, put tape around it and leave. I called and called every day, until I got the message,” resident Rafael Espasas told the CPI. What this Sonadora resident believes is that it didn’t matter if a street in the sector was without power, since LUMA would probably report that the area was already reconnected and, in his opinion, that would be what would appear in the statistics of energized places.
Thinking that LUMA would not come back to their community, 10 families got together and raised $1,000 among themselves. Of this amount, $600 went to buy materials and $400 to pay an independent linesman that the sector’s residents knew.
The work was done on Friday afternoon, September 30. In a matter of three hours, after the work began, power was restored in that “pocket” of the Sonadora sector in Aguas Buenas.
“At noon they were buying the parts. The linesman came with an assistant. They cleaned the area. The power came back at around 4:15 pm,” Espasas said.
The resident explained that in the days after Hurricane María in 2017, he contacted PREPA personnel to clear the area and take down the branches attached to cables and power poles. However, neither PREPA nor LUMA responded to his claim this time.
In just three hours, the independent linesman that the community hired not only restored the electrical service, but also cleared out the vegetation that should have been taken care of after Hurricane María back in 2017.
The neighbors did not identify the linesman who worked in their community that day. They just jokingly called their service “Jalda Power”, or “Slopes Power” in English, in reference to the area’s topography.
“Hopefully other communities do the same. Out in the countryside, there are many of us [without power]. I’m happy because I have power without LUMA; It wasn’t thanks to them,” Espasas said.
Four days later, this sector of Sonadora was once again in the dark and it was not until this Thursday that the power came back.
Fiona made landfall on September 18 crossing Puerto Rico’s southwestern tip as a category one hurricane. It dumped 20 to 30 inches of rain in some southern and inland municipalities, according to data from the US Geological Survey. After the hurricane, most of the population was left without electricity and with fuel distribution problems for reasons that the government of Puerto Rico has not yet been able to explain satisfactorily. The lack of energy generated a chain of problems in other essential services such as drinking water and running hospitals.
That reality is at odds with the promise that Governor Pedro Pierluisi made at a press conference on May 26, 2022, at the beginning of the hurricane season, after a meeting with his cabinet and the senior leadership of LUMA Energy, privately responsible for transmission and distribution of the energy network.
“As a government, we’re ensuring that all response components are ready to effectively and quickly mitigate any emergency situation. Our people suffered too much from the ravages of hurricanes Irma and María, and demand that the government is ready and that its response be immediate and effective,” the Governor told Puerto Rico that day.
Five months later, on September 17, when Pierluisi was reporting on the preparations for Fiona’s imminent strike, power service was interrupted at the Emergency Operations Center (COE) from where he was speaking. Beyond the embarrassment of the moment, it was also a prediction of the general blackout on the following day and LUMA’s inability to restore service in dozens of communities almost three weeks later.
Tough for people in the countryside to find gas
In Orocovis, Plácedes’s husband, Jorge Luis Meléndez Mercado, is the one who is with her most of the time. He is 81 years old and a cancer patient. He just came back from his farm soaked in sweat.
“The [power] generator gets filled up and it runs for one day. But searching for gasoline is a very big problem,” said the farmer, explaining that Bauta Abajo, which is almost 40 minutes by car from the Orocovis town square, was practically cut off due to the landslides caused by Fiona’s heavy downpours.
Going out to look for gasoline, and even food, is a problem in this neighborhood, where these days no one has seen a LUMA Energy brigade working on its streets and roads, the neighbors say.
In addition, two of the main roads in Orocovis collapsed due to Fiona’s rains. The municipality’s work is ongoing on the PR-590 and PR-143 roads, which under normal conditions, would prevent Doña Plácedes’ brother, José Collazo, who helps the couple, from taking at least three hours looking for gas outside of Orocovis.
“I had to go somewhere else because there was no gasoline here. And to that, you have to add that you spend money. I’m also a cancer patient, and it’s very hard. The trip is long because there is no way to get through,” said José, who goes to her sister’s house to help her because the blackout and the landslides complicated the situation to the point that Doña Plácedes spent several days without her medication.
“If there’s no power, I move much less. I barely move. I’ve been sitting here for a long time,” Doña Plácedes said.
The lack of electricity left the residents of Bauta Abajo without drinking water service until the municipal government supplied them with a power generator to get the system running. Neighbors and municipal employees did the work.
The president of the neighborhood’s community aqueduct, Francisco Alvarado, lives near Doña Plácedes and Jorge Luis, and remembers the tension his family experienced when, during heavy rains, they realized that his 81-year-old mother-in-law Tomasa Rivera Ocasio’s oxygen tank was running out. She is bedridden in her home, because a few weeks before the hurricane struck, she suffered a heart attack that prevented her from walking again.
“We almost didn’t make it [back to the house]. A few minutes after we came back, the road behind us was gone. That was a race against time,” said Don Francisco, recalling the errand.
From her adjustable bed, which also depends on electricity, Doña Tomasa laughs as she listens to her son-in-law’s story. She said that she is lucky to have him and the rest of her relatives who take care of her even in difficult times.
Caelly Torres López’s house is in this same neighborhood. She lives there with her five-year-old daughter. When night falls, in the vast darkness of this countryside, it is almost impossible to see that the house is on the verge of collapse.
“They almost lost everything,” is the first thing her mother-in-law Luz Ortiz Rodríguez said. “And water flooded the house. It leaked through the roof, and it even came out of the light switches.”
Now, mother and daughter spend their days in the same room because the girl lost her bed. They sleep together and light up with a couple of candles that sit on the dresser.
“It’s my little house. Our little house. So much sacrifice…”, laments Caelly, who cries when she explains why they stay in the house. Standing in front of the dresser mirror, where an open bible rests, this 28-year-old mother said “I have no electricity, no water and I don’t want to lose my house either. That’s what I ask of God.”
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