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Puerto Rico's Electric Utility Is In Chaos, With Customers Still Awaiting Power

Jul 17, 2018
Originally published on July 17, 2018 10:15 am
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In Puerto Rico, the search is on for a new CEO for the island's electric utility. This will be the fifth CEO since Hurricane Maria destroyed the electric grid. The most recent CEO quit last week before he even started the job. Meanwhile, about a thousand households are still waiting for power 10 months after the storm. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: High in Puerto Rico's central mountain range, 85-year-old Ana Delia Medina Delgado opens the front door to her tidy but darkened home. "Come in," she says, "look at what I use for light."

ANA DELIA MEDINA DELGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She has a little lantern and a flashlight - nothing more. Her refrigerator is empty, unplugged.

MEDINA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I think my dear lord," she begins. But then, her wide smile fades, and she falls into the arms of her adult grandson, Abdiel.

MEDINA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I have a wonderful daughter," she sobs, "and my grandkids. They are the ones who've looked after me." Medina is among the last thousand or so customers that Puerto Rico's electric utility says are still waiting for power 10 months after Hurricane Maria. The utility, known as PREPA, says it won't stop till they all have power.

But last week, PREPA fell into chaos. The island's governor, Ricardo Rossello, demanded that PREPA's board cut the $750,000 salary of its newly hired CEO. In response, five out of the seven board members, including the new CEO, resigned, saying in a letter that, quote, "petty political interests" were trying to control the utility.

The governor denied interfering politically and quickly began filling the vacancies on PREPA's board. It's a critical time at the utility, which is owned by the government. Last month, the governor signed a bill that will privatize power generation on the island but keep power distribution under government control.

SERGIO MARXUACH: Even though the governor talks about privatizing PREPA, he still has the hope to be able to control the company.

FLORIDO: Sergio Marxuach is with the Center for a New Economy, a think tank in Puerto Rico. It's well-known, he says, that because PREPA is so huge, generates so much cash, issues so many contracts, that the island's governors have long seen control of the utility as one of the spoils of office.

MARXUACH: On the other hand, you had the old board. And I think they had a different vision to make PREPA less political, more professional and also perhaps had a different vision as to how it should operate going into the future.

FLORIDO: Angel Figueroa Jaramillo, president of the union representing electric workers, agrees that political meddling is a rampant problem at PREPA. But he also feared that the resignation of its independent board members would only allow the government to exert more control over the utility.

ANGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "They resigned from Puerto Rico's most important corporation," Jaramillo says, "without any sense of their obligation to the people." Jaramillo and his union have fiercely opposed the government's plan to privatize the utility. Aside from its ongoing struggle to turn the lights on after the hurricane, the utility is bankrupt and owes creditors billions of dollars. Cate Long does research for some of those creditors.

Is this common? Does this happen often?

CATE LONG: No, it never happens - never. Utilities tend to be exceptionally stable businesses. Investors love putting - you know, buying bonds of utilities because they're really basically the most stable entities in the United States economy. So this is so far off the charts, it just doesn't even register.

FLORIDO: Long wants the federal government to take PREPA over, at least for a while. That idea is being hotly debated in local news. This is all news to Carlos Lopez.

CARLOS LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "No power means we can't turn on the news," he said. Right now, one of his big concerns is keeping his little generator running. It's the third one he's bought since the hurricane. He said they burn out every three months or so.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Utuado, Puerto Rico.

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