When Will Power Come Back To Puerto Rico? Depends Who You Ask : NPR

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Eric Elder, an Army reservist who came to Puerto Rico in early October to do power line work, says the work is challenging. “Every pole is different, every pole has to be looked at and dressed differently.”

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Eric Elder, an Army reservist who came to Puerto Rico in early October to do power line work, says the work is challenging. “Every pole is different, every pole has to be looked at and dressed differently.”

Greg Allen/NPR

These days, Puerto Rico’s monumental power restoration effort involves helicopters dropping 100-foot towers into the mountains and a “big dance” of crews, equipment and expertise from several agencies and companies. But progress has been slow and that dance has been a complicated and tedious one on the island, which is experiencing the largest outage in U.S. history.

And sometimes it’s one light forward, two lights back.

Earlier this week, the island hit a goal of restoring 50 percent of its generating capacity, according to Gov. Ricardo Roselló. But hours later, a major transmission line failed, knocking out electricity to much of San Juan and reducing power generation on the island to just 22 percent. By Thursday, Puerto Rico was back up to 40 percent of its generating capacity.

Getting the lights back on in Puerto Rico is a far more a intensive task compared with the mainland, which was able to restore power quickly after hurricanes hit Florida and Texas. Two months ago, Hurricane Maria’s 150 mile-per-hour winds snapped concrete power poles and left power lines dangling on the island. And the hilly terrain means it takes longer to get material and crews to areas that need work.

Eric Elder, who has been working in Puerto Rico as an Army reservist since early October, says it just takes longer to get material in compared with the mainland. Elder is part of the Delta 249 engineering battalion based in Cranston, R.I. and on this recent day, he was working in the hilly neighborhood of Rio Grande, a city east of San Juan. “There are lots of different challenges that we don’t face on the mainland,” he says.

José Sánchez comes by to check on the crews working in Rio Grande. Sanchez heads local efforts to restore the power grid in Puerto Rico for the Army Corps of Engineers and has several hundred contractors working for him. He says this neighborhood’s distribution lines — the network that takes power to individual homes and businesses — are nearly ready. But that doesn’t necessarily mean their work is done.

José Sánchez, who heads the Army Corps of Engineers efforts to restore the power grid in Puerto Rico, says the repair work is slowest is in the southeastern part of the island where Hurricane Maria made landfall. That’s because of topography and limited materials, he says. “Demand is high and everything comes from the mainland.”

Greg Allen/NPR


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Greg Allen/NPR

José Sánchez, who heads the Army Corps of Engineers efforts to restore the power grid in Puerto Rico, says the repair work is slowest is in the southeastern part of the island where Hurricane Maria made landfall. That’s because of topography and limited materials, he says. “Demand is high and everything comes from the mainland.”

Greg Allen/NPR

“The ones dropping to the homes — they all look good,” he says, “the transformer looks good but obviously we won’t really know until it’s energized.”


Sánchez is in charge of just half of the power restoration effort here.

The other half of the work being done elsewhere on the island is being managed by Puerto Rico’s cash-strapped electric power company, PREPA. PREPA has some 2,000 people working to restore power on the island, including crews from Whitefish, the small Montana-company whose contract was cancelled recently amid controversy.

In contrast, the Department of Energy estimates 60,000 workers from hundreds of public and private electric were deployed to restore power in Florida after Hurricane Irma hit, as NPR’s Tim Webber reported.

Sánchez says he meets daily with PREPA officials, “to determine the best location for the assets according to materials, expertise and equipment.” He calls the operation in Puerto Rico “one big dance.” His toughest job is repairing high voltage transmission lines that connect power plants in the south with population centers on Puerto Rico’s northern coast. His crews are working to replace steel towers over 100 feet tall in mountainous areas.


“One tower would be brought in by helicopter” he says, and “personnel would be dropped by helicopter and their equipment in order to work at the site.”

Before the transmission line failure this week, Puerto Rico’s government said utility crews had restored close to half of the island’s generating capacity. But that didn’t mean that half of the island had power. Power is being restored first to hospitals and critical industries and slowly restoration work is moving into neighborhoods like this one in Rio Grande.

Work goes slowly. The topography of Puerto Rico is challenging and replacing a single tower, Sánchez says, can take up to a week.

Sánchez is asked several times each day when the power will come back on, and he’s hesitant to give a direct answer.

“I don’t know,” he says, “I want to say a date but I don’t want to be giving false hopes to people.”

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