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A week without power after Fiona, Puerto Ricans experience echoes of Hurricane Maria

“It’s one week exactly that I can’t open my business where I can’t make money, I can’t pay my employees," said Cabo Rojo business owner Yeliska Vargas. 'We're in a very diffficult situation."
Hevel Velez Luciano, a community leader in Cabo Rojo, stands in front of a home destroyed by a downed tree in that region of Puerto Rico on Sept. 24, 2022.
Hevel Vélez Luciano, a community leader in Cabo Rojo, stands in front of a home destroyed by a downed tree Saturday.Daniella Silva / NBC News

CABO ROJO, Puerto Rico — Driving in the pitch black winding roads of a mountain town on Saturday night, Hevel Vélez Luciano, 25, gazed ahead and took a deep breath. Beyond the mountain, there was a small cluster of lights in the distance, the only place in Cabo Rojo that had electricity.

Beyond that small area, which includes a few streets in the urban center and a main traffic light, the rest was a vast darkness. 

“I’d say it doesn’t even reach 5% that is back,” Vélez Luciano, a tall man with blond streaks in his brown hair who was wearing a blue T-shirt topped by a silver chain, said in Spanish. 

For Puerto Ricans, the uncertainty of when electricity will be fully restored is a haunting echo of the catastrophic situation following Hurricane Maria five years ago, where it took some areas months and others up to a year to regain power. 

About half of the nearly 1.5 million power customers are still without electricity on Sunday, a week after Fiona made landfall near Cabo Rojo, leaving the entire island in the dark.

Workers with Luma Energy attempt to restore power on a flooded street in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 24, 2022.
Workers with Luma Energy try to restore power on a flooded street in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, on Saturday.Daniella Silva / NBC News

Most of the customers who’ve been reconnected to the power grid are in the northeast, where the storm caused less damage. As of early Sunday, about 802,000 power customers have had their electricity restored, which is about 55% of all customers, according to the Puerto Rican government’s emergency portal

About 80%, or 1,062,192 customers, have had their water service restored as of Saturday afternoon, according to the Water and Sewer Authority. About 20% of customers still have no water.

“It’s a disgrace that a week after this storm, which was strong and did its damage but was not Hurricane Maria, that we still don’t fully have water,” Vélez Luciano said. In Cabo Rojo about 20% to 25% of customers still don't have water service. “It’s disrespectful,” he said.

Hevel Velez Luciano distributes food and supplies in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 24, 2022.
Hevel Vélez Luciano distributes food and supplies Saturday in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.Daniella Silva / NBC News

Vélez Luciano had just spent another day in the scorching heat, distributing cases of bottled water, ice, food and other much-needed supplies in the southwestern municipality of Cabo Rojo, where he is a community leader.

The water that is coming out of the government system is still unreliable, and drinking water remains a precious resource, he said.

In Cabo Rojo, the main concern is the area’s hospital, which on Saturday night was still running on a massive, roaring generator.

Earlier on Saturday, brigades from Luma Energy, the company in charge of power transmission and distribution, worked on a flooded road, replacing poles and repairing the main transmission line that powers the hospital.

For days, long lines have formed outside gas stations, with lines about half a mile long and people waiting between an hour and three hours at many locations. Since the hurricane, fuel and diesel have become essential to daily life in Puerto Rico, mainly to power the generators.

Government officials said there was enough fuel and diesel for 60 days and insisted challenges were about distribution, not supply. But some businesses, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, have had to close over the lack of power or fuel to operate their generators, or because of lack of water.

People play pool in a bar on Sept. 20, 2022, in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.
People play pool in a bar Tuesday in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.Jose Jimenez / Getty Images

Yeliska Vargas, a Cabo Rojo resident and restaurant owner, had not been able to reopen her business. The water pump that services the area near her restaurant stopped working because of the lack of power, causing an overflow of sewage water that has left lingering dark, dirty water and a putrid smell.

“It’s one week exactly that I can’t open my business, where I can’t make money, I can’t pay my employees. They are also concerned about working in an area without power. We’re in a very difficult situation,” said Vargas, who owns La Bodeguita del Puerto restaurant.   

'Puerto Rico is completely devastated'

When asked what she would want to see from the federal response and from President Joe Biden, she said she wanted Biden to come to Puerto Rico and see the extent of the damage. 

“It’s important for him to come and not just stay in one area, but get a representation of the reality on the island and the impacted municipalities,” she said. “It would be a big relief for a lot of people.”

People wait in line at the Top Fuel gas station to fill their tanks on Sept. 20, 2022, in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.
People wait in line at the Top Fuel gas station to fill their tanks Tuesday in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.Jose Jimenez / Getty Images

Her sister, Ileana Vargas, 54, also said it would mean a lot for Biden to come and see that “Puerto Rico is completely devastated.” Vargas was a supervisor at a nearby hospital on the day Fiona made landfall and said that four babies were born in the hospital in the midst of the strong winds and rains. The hospital remains running on a generator, she said.

A week after Fiona, some roads and streets remained flooded in Cabo Rojo. A small bridge collapsed and dozens of houses were destroyed, Velez Luciano said. Others suffered major damage including torn-off roofs. Velez Luciano also lost his home after Fiona’s winds shook the house and ripped off parts, allowing rain waters to come in. He said he was able to save some important documents and clothes, but “everything else was lost.”

Tallying the deaths

As of Saturday, at least 16 people had died because of Hurricane Fiona, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Health, which is tracking hurricane-related deaths. The only death classified as “directly” related to the hurricane was that of a 58-year-old man in the town of Comerío, who was found dead on the side of a river.

Three other deaths have been classified as “indirectly” related to the hurricane; the rest are being investigated to see how they should be categorized. At least five deaths occurred because people lacked power. They experienced deadly accidents with generators or candles being used to light up their dark homes.

Five years ago, nearly 3,000 people died in the months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, a far higher number than the government’s first official death toll of 64. Hurricane Maria triggered one of the longest power blackouts in history and left many Puerto Ricans without access to potentially life-saving needs.

Mayors take matters into their own hands

While Fiona’s damages are evident to most residents in Puerto Rico, the local government expects to have a preliminary estimate on damages caused by the hurricane in the next two weeks.

But mayors in remote and battered towns where power restoration has taken too long are starting to get desperate — and are even taking matters into their own hands. 

When Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz was on the brink of starting to hire his own experts and workers to fix damaged power lines, Luma Energy reached an agreement with him, officially authorizing him to do so in a safe way. The work to replace light posts and install cables started Saturday in the community of La Peña. The idea was to help Luma Energy rebuild as much as possible so it could just focus on re-energizing the system.

In the town of Aguadilla, Mayor Julio Roldán Concepción followed his colleague's lead and hired his own team to bring fallen light posts and cables back up to where they belong.

A house that was washed away by Hurricane Fiona at Villa Esperanza in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21, 2022.
A house that was washed away by Hurricane Fiona at Villa Esperanza in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on Wednesday.Alejandro Granadillo / AP

“I’m fed up,” Roldán Concepción said on Facebook Live on Friday, announcing the start of their work Saturday. “By the time Luma gets here, they will have zero excuses to not restore power.”

In Utuado, Mayor Jorge Pérez Heredia released an open letter to Luma Energy Thursday begging the company to connect the town to a nearby power plant that has already been energized, since Utuado “has one of the largest populations of older adults,” he said.

“I assure you, Utuado is ready to be energized,” Pérez Heredia, who has previous experience working with power lines, said in his letter. 

In response, a Luma Energy spokesperson said the company planned on connecting Utuado to the energized power plant Friday. On Friday night, Pérez Heredia went on Facebook Live to announce that the town center and the hospital had been energized.

“There’s still work to be done, but electric service is already being restored in our town,” he said in Spanish.

Daniella Silva reported from Puerto Rico and Nicole Acevedo reported from New York.

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