Puerto Ricans Fear Extended Blackout After Hurricane Fiona

SAN JUAN, P.R. — Michelle Rivera trudged slowly up the stairs of her apartment building, stopping to collect her breath and regain the strength to carry one more gallon of water to her home on the eighth floor. It was Friday, the sixth day of a power blackout in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona.

“I’m so tired,” said Ms. Rivera, 41, as she prepared to spend another night in the dark. “Exhausted of going up and down.”

The rank smell of rotting food filled the stairs and hallways. The staircase, in the middle of the 14-story Jardines de Francia building in the San Juan neighborhood of Hato Rey, had no emergency lighting. Ms. Rivera and her neighbors in the building’s more than 100 units climbed the steps carefully, with the help of flashlights and cellphones.

The building not only did not have power since early Sunday morning, but it also had no running water since there was no electricity to run the pumps.

About half of Puerto Rico’s 1.5 million electrical customers remained without electricity on Saturday, nearly a week after Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 storm, caused widespread flooding and mudslides. At least three people died and two were injured this week in accidents related to the power outage. A candle fire burned down a house in San Juan, killing two and injuring one. Another person died and another was sent to the hospital after being intoxicated with fumes from a generator. (On Saturday, the Puerto Rican government said up to 16 people overall may have died as a direct or indirect result of the storm, though at least a dozen of those cases were still being investigated.)

Restoring power after a hurricane can take time anywhere. But Puerto Rico, with its aged and fragile grid, is especially vulnerable to both outages and extensive recovery time. Having lived through months without electricity after Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that ripped through the island five years ago, weary Puerto Ricans — who pay some of the highest electricity rates in the United States — say they have little patience to accept another prolonged blackout after Hurricane Fiona.

“Do you think it’s fair that you pay so much to not have electricity?” said Dennis Rodríguez, 59, one of Ms. Rivera’s neighbors, who said monthly bills have jumped from $80 to more than $200 over the past year. “I can bet you that the power bill will arrive on time.”

Hurricane Fiona caused catastrophic floods across Puerto Rico, but the damage on the island’s power grid was not as evident as it was after Hurricane Maria, when it seemed as if the wind had knocked over every post and shredded every line. Some residents have started to protest the slow progress of the restoration.

On Friday, former employees of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the public utility that runs power generation, urged Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi to let them work on power restoration. The ex-workers criticized LUMA Energy, the private company that has been in charge of power transmission and distribution since last year, for the slow progress — and reminded Mr. Pierluisi that the extended power failure significantly contributed to some 3,000 people dying after Hurricane Maria. Several mayors have expressed discontent and one, in the San Juan suburb of Bayamón, said he would hire crews of former PREPA linemen to get to work.

LUMA executives have said they have the necessary crews to restore the grid.

In the days since the storm hit, hospitals, supermarkets, businesses and residents have had trouble finding diesel to fuel their generators, forcing some to turn them on for only a few hours a day. Others have seen their generators fail, as what happened to a building in the suburb of Guaynabo, where residents were stranded without elevators in a 27-story building, without water or electricity, until a backup generator was brought in a day later.

Of the 68 hospitals on the main island in the Puerto Rico archipelago, 15 to 20 were still without power and operating on generators on Friday, said Jaime Plá Cortés, president of the Puerto Rico Hospital Association.

Mr. Plá Cortés said that several hospitals installed backup generators after Hurricane Maria, when some had to rely on them for more than five months. But the machines need fuel to run.

Without saying that there is a fuel shortage or disruption in distribution, Mr. Pierluisi ordered the Puerto Rico National Guard on Friday to take control of diesel distribution to hospitals, supermarkets and water facilities. On Saturday, about one-fifth of an estimated 1.2 million customers of the water utility did not have service, mainly because of lack of power in water plants.

Edan Rivera Rodríguez, the secretary of consumer affairs who is in charge of overseeing fuel supplies, said in an interview on Friday that though there had been distribution issues at a couple of ports, Puerto Rico had 10.2 million gallons — or 11 days’ worth — of diesel supply. He was expecting that number to more than double with the arrival that same day of a cargo ship filled with 13 million more gallons of diesel.

Usually, among the five private fuel importers in Puerto Rico, the island has up to a 30-day diesel supply, Mr. Rivera Rodríguez said.

But for residents of buildings like Jardines de Francia, assurances that more diesel is coming soon provide little relief. The building does not have a generator, unlike many high-rises in Puerto Rico.

The lack of access to essential services such as electricity and water has affected the physical and mental health of Ms. Rivera and her neighbors. Diabetics store their insulin, which is supposed to be kept cool, in powerless refrigerators. One neighbor suffered an anxiety attack at night this week, apparently overcome by the post-hurricane stress, Ms. Rivera said.

Some residents pay $5, $10 or $40 for people to bring up their groceries and water. One neighbor bought a small $1,050 inverter generator this week, paid someone to bring it up and installed it in her balcony.

On Friday night, Ms. Rivera, who lives with her 10-year-old daughter and 59-year-old mother in her mother’s apartment, carried up the gallons of water that she uses for drinking, doing dishes and flushing toilets. A nonprofit provided trays of hot meals. She saved one for herself and another for her mother and daughter. Then she went upstairs to visit older neighbors with limited mobility.

A neighbor in her 80s, who lives alone on the 13th floor, cried when Ms. Rivera brought her a plate of hot food.

“I think she had not eaten in a while, because she started crying,” said Ms. Rivera as she stood in the middle of her dark and hot living room. “I told her: ‘Do not cry, stay calm. Tomorrow I’ll bring you more.’”

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