It took only minutes for Hurricane Maria to kill power to the Puerto Rican town of Coamo, cracking wooden poles, snapping power lines and hurling transformers to the ground.
For months, residents begged Puerto Rico’s power company and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to bring back their electricity, with few results.
So the people of this town of 40,000 high in the mountains of southern Puerto Rico have started restoring power on their own, pulling power lines from undergrowth and digging holes for wooden posts in a do-it-yourself effort to solve a small part of the United States’ longest-running power outage.
“If we don’t do this, we’ll be without power until summer,” said Vice Mayor Edgardo Vazquez, who is using hand-drawn maps to organize a brigade that includes teachers, handymen, a postal worker and an accountant, backed by municipal workers with professional equipment, tools and experience in light electrical work.
Puerto Rico’s power company and the Corps of Engineers have thousands of workers and managers from mainland public utilities and private companies working across the island to restore power. The federally funded multibillion-dollar effort has been slowed by rough terrain, slow arrival of supplies and delays in asking for help from power companies on the U.S. mainland after the Sept. 20 Category 4 storm. More than 400,000 power customers across Puerto Rico remain in the dark.
In Coamo, frustrated by months of heat and darkness, 60-year-old homemaker Carmita Rivera called a meeting at her home in mid-January to try to find local solutions to the problem.
“Desperation set in,” Rivera said. “We all felt like: ‘What about us? We’re human beings. Enough is enough.'”
Fifty people showed up and swiftly went to work. In late January, a group of neighbors laid a 300-pound wooden electric post atop two logs and tipped it into a freshly dug five-foot hole.
They hooted as one man hit his pickup truck’s accelerator and dragged the pole alongside the hole. The group then used a neighbor’s tow truck to guide the 35-foot pole into the hole.
“We did it!” one man shouted, shaking his fist.
By law, only the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, has authority to work on the island’s power grid. Coamo’s vice mayor says a regional PREPA director authorized his public works department and volunteers to work on the town’s lower-voltage distribution system, providing them materials or re-using cables that weren’t damaged in the storm. A power company official comes by afterward to ensure the work is properly done. The higher-voltage lines that bring power to the town itself remain off limits to all but PREPA workers and authorized contractors.
No deaths or serious injuries have been reported, but Sue Kelly, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association, said having so many people working to restore power is understandable but worrying.
“The biggest issue is safety,” she said. “We are making good progress. … But uncoordinated efforts can result in death.”
In the western mountain town of San Sebastian, a group of municipal workers, retired company workers and volunteers have restored power to nearly 2,000 homes despite objections from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, whose officials have filed complaints with police and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Power company spokesman Geraldo Quinones declined to comment on the community efforts, saying only that municipalities can help out by clearing roads and debris, identifying places without power and delivering materials in hard-to-reach areas.
But as the number of mayors complaining about slow power restoration has grown, the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rossello allowed municipalities to sign an agreement with the power company to take over repairs if interested and relieve the agency of any responsibility. Only about a dozen communities have done that so far.
In Coamo, the vice mayor, relies on residents to tell him where damaged cables and posts are located, and uses hand-drawn maps to show homes that have power or need it. Vazquez sends pictures and updates daily to power company officials so they know what is being done.
On Jan. 30, he and his crew were able to restore power to at least three homes in Coamo, including that of 78-year-old Antonia Pagan, who hugged the workers and cried. The first thing she did after getting her electricity back was to use a blender to make a smoothie for her son with apples, strawberries, bananas and grapes.
“I was in agony,” Pagan said, adding that she lost most of her fingernails while washing clothes in the same river her mother once used before the town got power.
Pagan, who lost her right eye to glaucoma, said the best part of having electricity is no longer bumping into things in the dark. Hundreds of others who live around her, however, remain in the dark, including Felipe Rodriguez, a 53-year-old retired carpenter who also has no water and yet receives bills for services he is not getting.
“I’m tired of this,” he said. “I wake up every single morning and it’s the same thing over and over.”
That hasn’t stopped him from helping others get power. He recently used his beat-up 1986 pickup truck to move a 300-pound wooden post up a steep hill and then balanced himself on the corner of a roof to help guide it into a previously dug hole on a hill.
As he and others struggled with the pole, they yelled instructions at one another: “Don’t hit the window! Turn it around! Wrap the rope around it twice, not once!”
They finally installed the post, one of more than 60 erected so far in Coamo by volunteers and municipal workers. An estimated 30 percent of people in the town still don’t have power.
It’s disheartening for neighbor Oscar Rodriguez, who asked that power company officials finish the job he and his neighbors started.
“Sometimes we get depressed since it seems to have fallen on deaf ears because we’re not seeing any movement,” he said. “We put everything on a silver platter for them.”