Desperate mayors in Puerto Rico are clashing with Luma Energy, the Canadian-American private company in charge of power transmission and distribution, over how to restore electricity in regions that remain in the dark nine days after Hurricane Fiona triggered an islandwide blackout.
Speaking to NBC News, two Luma officials praised the company for embarking on "one of the fastest power restorations" in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, noting its efforts in re-energizing almost two-thirds of Puerto Rico in just more than a week.
Most of the customers who’ve been reconnected to the power grid are in the northeast, where the storm caused less damage, leaving mayors in the southern and western regions with little to celebrate.
Nearly two-thirds of power customers in Aguadilla still don't have electricity, Mayor Julio Roldán Concepción said in Spanish.
Worried about his constituents' deteriorating quality of life and the time-consuming power restoration process in his town, Roldán Concepción was among the first mayors to create his town's own brigade of workers and experts to bring fallen light posts and cables back up to where they belong. The idea was to help Luma rebuild as much as possible so it could focus just on re-energizing the system.
The brigade started moving cables dangling on tops of homes and tangled between trees two days ago after it got a letter from Luma giving mayors the green light to do so, Roldán Concepción said. The letter also said the collaboration between mayors and Luma would be formalized with a "memorandum of understanding."
When Roldán Concepción and other mayors across the island embarking on similar efforts got a copy of the memorandum, they discovered it limited the town's efforts to debris removal and traffic control, labor that most municipalities have already been doing.
Melissa Pueyo, Luma's director of key accounts, said in Spanish: "There is no need a week after an emergency, after a hurricane, to have other people working on our power lines. Under no circumstances is it safe at this time, or responsible, to have anyone other than us touching the power lines."
Pueyo said Luma is "doing remote energizations," which can put the lives of brigades and Luma employees at risk. She also raised concerns about local brigades' restoring the power infrastructure in a way that's "not in accordance with Luma Energy's work plan."
Most of the workers being hired by mayors to operate municipal brigades are former employees of the Puerto Rico Power Authority, which is in charge of power generation on the island. Many such former employees worked fixing power lines before Luma took over the island's electric transmission and distribution last year.
Over the weekend, the workers hired by Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz "lifted downed power lines that were not energized to speed the work of Luma's crews and installed new poles in some areas," according to a news release Tuesday.
Roads in rural areas "are now free of debris and with free transit access for the Luma brigades," Rivera Cruz said in a statement, adding that "there is no longer an excuse" for Luma not to restore power to about a third of Bayamón, which is still in the dark.
Juan Rodríguez of Luma said that while local brigade workers may have experience working with Puerto Rico's electric grid, their efforts to restore power lines and lights posts "put the economic recovery of Puerto Rico at risk," because they may not be following Luma's standards.
"They put federal funds at risk that could be lost if due process is not followed to document damages as required" by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Rodríguez, Luma's vice president of projects.
"We don't want to enter in cycles of temporary repairs that are not up to our safety standards," he said.
Pueyo of Luma said "speed is not necessarily the way to go."
"This same approach of fixing things with tape and gum is what has brought us here," she said, highlighting the fragility of the power grid, which was patched up and never permanently rebuilt after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
However, the lack of electricity has already killed several Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. At least five of the 21 hurricane-related deaths are attributed to deadly accidents with generators or to candles being used to light up dark homes.
Despite those incidents, Pueyo said, Luma's efforts to quickly restore power "have been to preserve life and to guarantee the safety of all our clients."
Rodríguez said setbacks delayed Luma's emergency response plans. Fiona's torrential rains flooded power plants and triggered landslides that destroyed roads and bridges, making it difficult for Luma to reach hard-hit areas.
More than 400,000 power customers out of nearly 1.5 million — 27% — were still without electricity Tuesday evening.
Among them are the residents of Naguado. The town had been completely in the dark until Monday, when Luma energized its urban center and the community health center.
But, uncertain over how many more days it would take to restore power to the rest of her town, Mayor Miraidaliz Rosario is hiring her own brigade, despite not having Luma's approval, said her spokesperson, Odalis Zayas.
Under Puerto Rico's municipal code, mayors like Roldán Concepción and Rosario are allowed to "carry out all procedures and tasks necessary to normalize or restore the electrical energy system."
"Our plan is to keep the work our brigades are doing," Roldán Concepción said.
In Villalba, the brigade dubbed "Villalba Power" started unhooking power lines tangled in ravaged trees. Ninety-eight percent of the town has no electricity, Mayor Luis Javier Hernández said.
"Our war is with top executives at Luma who don't feel the pressure from our people," Hernández said Tuesday on Facebook Live as he was overseeing the work of "Villalba Power."
Luma vowed to restore power to up to 91% of all customers by Friday. Rodríguez said he is confident Puerto Rico will be fully energized in less than a month.
But rebuilding the power grid with permanent work could take years, because the system suffered over $1 billion in damage, according to preliminary estimates.
"We're talking that over 50% of our infrastructure was damaged," Rodríguez said.
CORRECTION (Sept. 28, 2022, 11:14 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article mistakenly stated Juan Rodríguez's last name was Hernández. The article has been updated.