Puerto Ricans fear blackouts during hurricane season

A new company took over the electric grid, but residents are not satisfied.

July 17, 2021, 10:09 AM

With the peak of hurricane season less than two months away, many Puerto Ricans are concerned about the stability of the island’s electric grid -- a problem-plagued system that left millions without power during Hurricane Maria.

After suffering multiple natural disasters in recent years including two hurricanes and thousands of earthquakes, the island’s already troubled electric system has been left damaged, leading to the grid becoming unstable.

“We all have to keep in mind that we have a very fragile electrical grid,” the island's governor, Pedro Pierluisi, told ABC News. Some residents are also concerned about the company that is now running the electric distribution system, LUMA Energy.

LUMA took over the island’s transmission and distribution system on June 1 -- the same day hurricane season started.

The system was previously managed by the governmental entity called Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which still manages electric generation.

Pierluisi blamed the current problems with the electric system on PREPA for not maintaining the grid.

“PREPA was not giving adequate maintenance to substations, to the electrical poles, electrical lines and Luma inherited that,” he told ABC News.

There was a massive blackout in Puerto Rico after an explosion at the Monacillo power distribution located in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 10, 2021.
NurPhoto via Getty Images, FILE

LUMA’s 1st month

The privatization of the country's electric grid was announced three years ago by former Gov. Ricardo Rosello.

LUMA’s contract with the government was announced during his successor, Wanda Vazquez's administration, but Pierluisi supported it once he took office in January 2021.

While blackouts and power outages weren't infrequent in some areas of Puerto Rico before LUMA, some residents say conditions have worsened since the new company has been in control.

Sylvia Giansante, a resident in San Juan, said "power outages were not frequent," but that changed in the last month. But "ever since last month," she said, "the power goes out every two days."

Giansante said she has three damaged air conditioning units due to the unstable power system and the frequent blackouts.

In the last month, Puerto Rico has seen multiple power outages and a major blackout caused by an explosion in one of the island’s electric substations. The Monacillo substation, where the explosion occurred, is located in San Juan and is run by LUMA Energy.

Aside from these incidents, thousands on the island have reported ongoing power outages in that time, with some lasting a couple of hours and others up to days.“The week of the explosion, we were without power for five days,” Giansante said.

A local police report said the substation explosion was due to a failure in the electric system. After rumors circulated that the explosion could have been intentionally set, federal authorities responded to the incident.

The FBI said in a statement to ABC News that their position is “one of support in assessing the events and related circumstances to determine if it was the result of an accident or of a criminal act.”

While the FBI’s spokesperson didn’t confirm an investigation they say “the people of Puerto Rico can rest assured that, should evidence of criminal action under our jurisdiction be found, we would pursue it to its fullest extent.”

Many residents in the island have been against LUMA’s takeover since the beginning of the transition process. They oppose the terms of the contract with the government and some are against privatizing the essential service.

Dozens of protests have been reported across the island demanding the cancellation of the contract between Puerto Rico’s government and the company.

An incident at the Monacillos substation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, caused the electricity service to be interrupted in several municipalities, June 10, 2021.

Residents concerns amid hurricane season

Karina Claudio-Betancourt lives in a community called Barrio Obrero located in Santurce, Puerto Rico. She says there was a live cable hanging in her street early in June and she called LUMA every day to report the situation.

"In the beginning, we made a lot of calls, and no answers," Claudio-Betancourt said. "I wrote to them via Twitter and Facebook."

LUMA’s external affairs adviser, Jose Perez Velez, told ABC News that the delay in responding to calls at the beginning of the month could have been related to a cyberattack the company suffered in their first week which affected their client service.

Once Claudio-Betancourt was able to communicate with LUMA, their response was “we're working on it, we're going to refer it to a supervisor, '' she says.

According to the 33-year-old woman it took LUMA three weeks after she made her first claim to address the situation.

With the ongoing hurricane season, residents say they are concerned about the company’s slow response to power outages.

“It's scary," Claudio-Betancourt said. "It's really a situation of life and death to lose electricity, and I don't see them responding quickly enough."

An investigation from the Center for Investigative Journalism of Puerto Rico indicated that most of the deaths in Hurricane Maria can be linked to the lack of electricity.

When Hurricane Maria slammed the island in 2017, it knocked out the power and all communications in the entire island. It took nearly a year to restore the electricity to the whole island. The official death toll linked to the storm is 2,975, according to Puerto Rico’s government.

Before hurricane season started this year, the Puerto Rican government held a press conference on May 26 addressing the contingency plan for any potential storm.

In that presser, LUMA’s CEO Wayne Stensby said the company was ready to work alongside the government to deal with any potential natural disaster.

In a public motion with the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, LUMA stated that the company has enough inventory including trucks and employees to deal with a Category 2 storm. A report with more details on an emergency plan was also submitted by LUMA.

“We are ready to put the customers first as our obligations,” Stensby said during the presser on May 26.

But in recent weeks, residents including Claudio-Betancourt said they have been told by employees at the call center that LUMA does not have enough equipment to deal with rural areas in the island.

Claudio-Betancourt has a residence in Las Marias, Puerto Rico located in the center westside of the island. Her residence has been without power for weeks. She called to report the situation, but LUMA was not able to address the complaint, she said.

"They said, 'We don't have enough linemen in that area.' Then I went personally to the offices in San Sebastian, and they said to me, 'We don't have the trucks to fix the electricity,'" Claudio-Betancourt told ABC News.

The LUMA representative, Perez Velez, reiterated that the company has the people and the tools to deal with the ongoing outages.

“We are prepared. We have the capacity and the people to handle the necessities in our island. We are going to deal with any possible atmospheric event in the most organized way,” he told ABC News.

Amid the wave of complaints against the new company, Gov. Pierluisi told ABC News his team has been talking to LUMA Energy to make check-ins and demand answers if needed.

"We will be vigilant, we will do the oversight, and there is a good plan in place to handle a disaster," Pierluisi said.

Although the governor believes that LUMA Energy has more resources compared to when PREPA ran the transmission and distribution of the system, he admitted the company needs more equipment.

"They're doing alliances as we speak, they're doing MOUs [memorandum of understanding] with mayors to supplement what they're doing, and they are also doing alliances with electrical companies and elsewhere in the states to assist them. If God forbid, we get another natural disaster here in Puerto Rico,” the governor added.

Despite LUMA’s declarations and the governor’s words, residents are still skeptical about the island’s electric system stability and the response they could get during a potential emergency.

“Maria was Category 4. What are they going to do if Category 4 comes? Are they going to leave us to die?” Claudio-Betancourt asked.

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