Puerto Rico authorities said Friday that nearly half of power customers in the U.S. territory still lack electricity more than three months after Hurricane Maria, sparking outrage among islanders who accuse the government of mismanaging its response to the Category 4 storm.
Officials said 55 percent of the nearly 1.5 million customers have power, marking the first time the government has provided that statistic since Maria hit on Sept. 20 with winds of up to 154 mph. Officials had previously reported only power generation, which stands at nearly 70 percent of pre-storm levels.
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"It's just extraordinary that it is still so far away from being 100 percent recovered," said Susan Tierney, a senior adviser for Denver-based consulting company Analysis Group who testified before a U.S. Senate committee on efforts to restore power in Puerto Rico. "I'm not aware of any time in recent decades since the U.S. has electrified the entire economy that there has been an outage of this magnitude."
One of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities remains entirely without power, and it's unclear when some electricity will be restored to the central mountain town of Ciales. Crews this week restored power for the first time to parts of the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa, which received the first hit from Maria.
Among those still in the dark is Christian Pagan, 58, who lives near the capital of San Juan and said it was the government's fault that a large number of people still don't have power.
"Everybody saw that the devastation was great, but I don't understand why they're trying to sell people something that's not real," he said of the explanations the government has provided as to why power has not been fully restored. "The first month was lost to bureaucracy and an uncoordinated reaction."
He especially criticized the power company's former director, Ricardo Ramos, who resigned in late October after signing a $300 million contract for a Montana-based company that had only two full-time employees when the storm hit. Ramos also had said that he did not activate mutual-aid agreements with power companies in the U.S. mainland in part because there was no way to communicate with them.
"That's the kind of help you ask for three days before the hurricane," Pagan said.
It is not yet known what percentage of businesses and homes now have electricity. Power company spokesman Geraldo Quinones told The Associated Press that officials are still working to obtain that data, stressing that the optical fiber that helps provide the number of customers with power and other data was destroyed by the hurricane.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello had pledged 95 percent power generation by Dec. 15, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said the entire island will have power by May.
Fredyson Martinez, vice president of a union that represents workers with Puerto Rico's power company, told the AP on Friday that a recent study by local engineers found that 90 percent of industries and 75 percent of businesses already have power, meaning residential areas are disproportionately in the dark.
Martinez said the company should have provided the number of customers without power a while ago, adding that officials had other ways of obtaining the information despite the damaged fiber optic cable.
Martinez also said that a lack of supplies and equipment is slowing power restoration efforts, echoing an early concern by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also has said that Puerto Rico's rough terrain presents another challenge.
Government officials said nearly 14,000 poles already have been shipped to Puerto Rico, and that another 7,000 will arrive in upcoming days. In addition, some 3,500 workers are trying to restore power across the island, with many working through the holidays and others even stripping down to their shorts to swim across a cold river with a strong current to reach damaged infrastructure.
"We know that the priority of our clients is to know when they will receive the power service again," said Justo Gonzalez, the power company's interim director. "Maria severely impacted most of our energy infrastructure."
Officials said Puerto Rico has 2,400 miles of transmission lines, 30,000 miles of distribution lines and 342 substations that suffered substantial damage during the hurricane. Gonzalez said crews are tackling projects that include installing new poles and building primary transmission towers and connection wiring.
Carlos Torres, who is overseeing power restoration efforts, said that crews are still finding unexpected damage including what he called severely impacted substations.
"We will not stop working until every person and business has their lights back on," he said.
Among those still waiting for power is Eileen Cheverez, a 48-year-old respiratory therapist who lives in Morovis, which borders Ciales. She said power was restored to homes around her, but that crews still need to set up a key cable so she can have lights.
"This truly consumes you mentally, emotionally," she said, adding that seeing homes lit up around her gives her some hope amid the frustration. "It's like a lack of respect. I know the damage was great, especially in the mountains, but I feel they've taken too long."
Puerto Rico's governor on Friday said that he has requested up to 1,500 additional workers from electric companies across the U.S. mainland to help restore power, and said he has asked the Army Corps of Engineers to increase its capacity to provide assistance.
"We understand how difficult it has been for the people of Puerto Rico who have been without power for so long," he said. "Our administration will continue working to ensure that there are the necessary resources to complete this restoration effort after an unprecedented devastation."