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Puerto Rico residents without power work to keep their neighborhoods safe

Higher crime rates in San Juan have people in communities without power not feeling secure.
Image: Puerto Rico Hurricane Recovery
Barrio Patron resident Karina Santiago Gonzalez works on a small power plant in Morovis on Dec. 21, 2017.Carlos Giusti / AP

Residents of San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital, are finding it harder to remain safe amid spikes in crime in neighborhoods still without power four months after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

While remote areas have been hit the hardest by the power outage, many people living in the metropolitan area are also still living in the dark.

One of them is Ada Torres, from Hyde Park, a neighborhood of Hato Rey, part of the greater San Juan metro area. Though she and her family have always been careful about keeping their home safe, it's become increasingly difficult, Torres said.

“You work hard in life to ensure the well-being of your family," she said. "In my case, we made sure that we have gates surrounding our house, that we have security cameras in place. But on Sept. 6, all of that collapsed."

With half the island's population still without power, crime rates rising and fewer officers on the street, residents are changing their daily habits.

For Torres, her new normal consists of being home with her husband and children no later than 6 p.m. for safety reasons. She plans to do this until power is restored in their neighborhood.

The island has seen an increase in murder, robbery and carjacking reports in the first two weeks of 2018, according to preliminary statistics from Puerto Rico's Police Department. During this time, there have been 43 murders — 21 more than reported in the same period of 2017 — 136 robberies, 16 more than last year — and 171 carjackings this year, compared with 146 last year. San Juan, in particular, has seen a rise in carjackings and robberies.

“Another neighbor of mine had her generator stolen," Torres said.

"They poisoned her dog in order to be able to steal it. At least she was able to use domestic remedies to save him, but still,” she said.

To cope with rising crime, families have been figuring out ways to increase neighborhood security.

“If something happens, I’ll just activate my car alarm and hope for the best,” said Irma Luratti, who is Torres’ neighbor and also is living without electricity.

Luratti had to ramp up security measures after the generator that supplied power to her elderly parents, who live across the street, was stolen almost two weeks ago.

The incident took place at around 2 a.m., but the family found out about it almost three hours later. That’s when Luratti called police. An hour later, officers showed up.

“We did the report, but I’m not really expecting anything out of it," Luratti said. "At this point, they are just doing what they can."

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Since then, Luratti has chained all the gates and doors of her parents’ home with two locks, and also added a solar light in the front yard that turns on when someone walks by.

“Having a generator is very important for my parents. My mom is 93. My dad is 97 and he needs respiratory therapy regularly,” Luratti said.

The island has been grappling with police force absenteeism since the end of 2017. Thousands of police officers have called in sick in protest over unpaid overtime hours in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Public Safety Secretary Héctor Pesquera said that “little by little” he will pay officers back, but it’s uncertain when. Just last week, Pesquera said it would be difficult to make the payments without more money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA.

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As of Monday, 450,000 to 460,000 subscribers of Puerto Rico’s Power Authority (AEEPR) were still without access to electricity since last September.

In University Gardens, a San Juan neighborhood near Hyde Park, 23 lampposts had been knocked down in the hurricane.

"Fixing one lamppost could take you half a day in the perfect scenario," said Carlos Velez, who lives in the area and is a former supervisor and chemist for AEEPR. But a lack of resources, materials and conflicting coordination of brigades are significantly delaying the process, he said.

For now, Torres and her family get home while it's still light outside and try to keep their surroundings safe.

“I know the stress has my husband feeling depressed," Torres said. "Every day we have to deal with the generators, turn them on and try to work.”