In recent weeks, power outages have increased across the island. Some of them lasted several days. The government has called the situation a "crass fail" and blamed everything from mechanical problems to seaweed.
Daily outages cause traffic jams, damage expensive appliances, force doctors to cancel appointments, close restaurants, shopping centers, schools, and prompt one university to suspend classes while another declares a moratorium for exams.
Iris Santiago, 48, a 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 humidity soars into high 90s Fahrenheit.
She said, "Like any Puerto Rican I live in constant anxiety because the power goes off every day." "Not everyone can go to their family and get into a house with a generator.
Santiago was without power for three days and had to throw away the milk, eggs and chicken that had spoiled in her fridge. Her refrigerator and air conditioner were also damaged by power surges, which she said cost her hundreds of dollars.
The Electric Power Authority of Puerto Rico, which generates electricity, and Luma (a private company that distributes power) have both blamed mechanical problems at several plants, including boilers and condensers. One recent incident saw seaweed block filters and narrow pipes.
Luma has also implemented select blackouts in recent week that have affected most of its 1.5 million clients. This is because demand is outstripping supply.
Luma assumed control of transmission and distribution in June. Puerto Rico's governor stated that the company had promised to cut power outages by 30% and reduce the duration of outages by 40%.
Electric Power Authority of the island has struggled for years with corruption, mismanagement 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 old power grid and leaving some customers without power for up to one year.
Although emergency repairs were made, reconstruction work to strengthen and upgrade the grid is still to be done.
Juan Alicea, an ex-executive director of the authority, stated that "we're on the brink of collapse".
Three main reasons were cited by him: The fact that officials stopped maintaining generation units in the mistaken belief that they would soon be retired, and the fact that officials believed they would soon be replaced. Numerous experienced employees have retired. Investment in infrastructure replacement has declined.
Puerto Rico's average age of power generation units is 45 years, which is twice the average age on the U.S. mainland.
Luma stated that it will spend $3.85billion 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. Pedro Pierluisi attributed the outages to management failures at Electric Power Authority, and called the repeated failures "untenable."
Pierluisi has been called to resign by hundreds of protestors gathered near the governor’s residence on Friday. Many are also demanding that Luma's contract be cancelled.
Last week, the president of the power authority's executive board resigned. Josue Colon was appointed as the new executive director. He promised to visit all units in the generation to find the root cause.
He said, "I understand the dire situation they are in." "We won't stop until this problem is solved."
People have been known to smash pots into the ground at night to vent their frustrations and organize protests.
Carmen Cabrer (53 years old) is one of those who will be joining. She is an asthmatic and diabetic. 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 might go out again, she cooks and washes her clothes at odd hours.
She said that the outages had become abusive. "I am constantly tense."
These outages are particularly aggravating due to rising power bills and people being forced to study or work from home by the pandemic.
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. 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 rethink everything. ... To pay the remaining bills, I will have to put my health at risk.
Maysonet, like other Puerto Ricans has changed her diet and now eats canned goods, snacks, and crackers that won’t spoil in an outage.
"Just as I'm about cooking something, the power goes off. She said, "I guess I'm having another cup of cereal."
The wealthy can buy generators and invest in solar panels. But 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 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 had made four appointments and was told by officials that they cancelled them all without any explanation.
He said, "This has caused great annoyance." "This building is home to many elderly people."
Casellas has had to sometimes work from home or at the office due to power outages. He doesn't get paid if he is unable to meet clients. He is also considering moving to Puerto Rico, like many 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, which saw an estimated 2,975 deaths. You can't survive without electricity.