Puerto Rican Carol Ward is a lung cancer patient who requires oxygen around the clock. A black oxygen machine never leaves her side. But the power instability on the island of Puerto Rico puts her life at risk almost daily.
Ward told “CBS Mornings” lead national correspondent David Begnaud that there have been days where the power went out and the battery backup on her machine died—leaving her without oxygen.
“There was three days, almost four days without power,” said Ward.
The power goes out but the power bills don’t stop coming. Ward lives on a fixed income of $1,500 a month and her power bill is just as unpredictable as her electricity.
But for Puerto Ricans, rolling blackouts and outrageously high electricity bills have become a part of life, five years after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island’s power grid.
“It’s frustrating and it makes you feel hopeless because you’ve been resilient since Maria. Here we’ve gone through so many things and now we are only surviving,” said Ward.
In 2021, the Puerto Rico government hired the private company, LUMA Energy, to handle the transmission and distribution of power on the island.
Fifteen months later—LUMA said it is still in the rebuilding phase.
“We are just basically starting to rebuild the grid. We have 209 active projects that represent about 5.5 billion of federal dollars,” said LUMA Representative Don Cortez.
“The reality is nothing has happened in terms of rebuilding. Right? How long do you expect that to take, Don?” Begnaud asked.
“We are rebuilding the grid every day. Every day we make improvements when we say we can rebuild. We have started the big projects. Right. But we go out every day and we rebuild segments of line. We rebuild poles. We’re rebuilding every day,” Cortez replied.
CBS News requested an interview LUMA Energy CEO, Wayne Stensby. He originally agreed to an interview with Begnaud but two days before the interview was set to take place, Stensby pulled out due to “personal reasons.”
CBS News did get a tour of LUMA’s training facility in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. It’s at this training facility where men and women train to become line workers and be part of the Island’s power solution.
The workers are Puerto Ricans themselves who say they know what it feels like to have appliances ruined due to power instability.
“We know exactly what the customer is saying. And we know that they’re speaking pretty loud. We are all Puerto Ricans, we live here. We do have outages in our homes, too,” LUMA representative Noriette Figueroa said.
LUMA has spent the last 15 months working to upgrade its transmission infrastructure—removing a wooden power pole and replacing it with a hurricane and earthquake-resistant one.
But it wasn’t enough to prevent Hurricane Fiona from knocking out power and water to most of the island.
Governor Pedro Pierluisi was a staunch advocate of LUMA when he took office in 2021. But when he spoke to Begnaud two weeks ago, Pierluisi said his confidence in the company has been shifted by recent power outages.
“The last couple of power outages, by their own admission, dealt with lack of maintenance on critical transmission lines and that that’s not acceptable to me. I know LUMA inherited a very fragile grid and I know that the reconstruction or the rebuilding of this grid will take years. But that’s what they were hired for,” the governor said.
Many frustrated Puerto Rican residents have taken their frustration to social media—posting viral video posts of flickering lights. They have also taken to the streets and held protests where they demand accountability and change.
According to the Puerto Rico energy bureau, since LUMA took over 15 months ago, power outages on the island last longer than they did as compared to when Puerto Rico’s power authority was in charge. But while there may be fewer power outages under LUMA, Puerto Rico Energy bureau says outages last longer.
Cortez said LUMA has spent the last 15 months working on stabilizing the power grid—which has caused a delay.
“When we came in the last year, it was about stabilizing the grid because it was really in a free fall full of outages. So, what we’re doing is as we are improving the service, we are reducing the number of outages,” said Cortez. “Now it’s taking a little longer because we’re fixing the grid. We’re not just going over there and clipping one branch and that’s it. We’re making a more permanent fix on the repairs we’re doing.”
For 17 years, Jorge Bracero has worked for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. But now he’s on the sidelines as LUMA energy responds to outages. Bracero said LUMA is failing and is not progressing.
“It worries me because I lose power every damn week. Every week, I got two small power plants at home. Two small generators just to keep my family safe because now the outages are not one an hour. I can spend 8 hours. That’s not progress,” Bracero said.
At one point on Sunday, all of Puerto Rico was left in the dark after Hurricane Fiona passed the island bringing torrential rains and dangerous winds.
The governor warned that it could take days to get the lights back on.
But some relief came to Ward this weekend when she received a portable battery-powered charger that she hopes will allow her 15 hours of electricity for her breathing machine.