Ten months without power: the Puerto Ricans still without electricity

Almost a year after Hurricane Maria ravaged the islands ailing power infrastructure, the Ruiz family is one of 1,000 still off the grid

They have eaten by candlelight for the past 10 months, powerless and isolated.

Their small home, with its wooden walls and tin roof, nestled high up in the hills of Utuado municipality, somehow survived Hurricane Maria without a scratch. Most others in the surrounding area of this mountainous region were swept apart by the wind. But the hurricane’s raw strength last September didn’t leave everything on their property unscathed. It uprooted a mango tree a few metres down their steep pathway, which crashed onto a pylon that had brought electricity up the slope for 23 years and cut this family of four off from the grid for almost a year.

They were among the remaining 1,000 households in Puerto Rico – almost all living in poorer, remote communities – without electricity in July after Maria practically knocked out the island’s entire ailing power infrastructure.

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Diana Vera-Maldonado looks out the kitchen window. Photograph: Angel Valentin for the Guardian

In the evenings, when the silence outside is pierced only by the sound of insects and a barking dog, Diana Vera-Maldonado often stands on the porchway, immersed in the darkness outside. “The night is beautiful,” she said. “I plant my flowers on the ledge to decompress. After Hurricane Georges [in 1998] it was only three months without power. That thought is painful to me.”

The months without electricity have taken their toll. Diana, a mother of four, no longer takes her digestive medicine because she has nowhere to keep it cool. They eat tinned food – beef, fish and vegetables – which preserves in the humidity, but costs far more. They lug bags of ice up the steep mountainside four times a week to keep it in picnic coolers.

“They treat people who live in places like this like we matter less, and as if we don’t have the capacity or class to learn,” she said, explaining that power crews here had told the family their home was too remote to prioritize for reconnection. “I’m saying this from my soul.”

Jose Ruiz Gonzalez, Diana’s husband of 26 years, is the family’s sole earner, bringing in a salary of $7.25 an hour cutting fabrics at a local textile factory. The money was not enough to buy a generator. But after six months without power, the factory offered a donation and purchased one for the family.

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A refrigerator turned into a book storage in the living room of a family without power since Hurricane Maria. Photograph: Angel Valentin for the Guardian

Still, the petrol prices meant they could barely afford to keep it running. On some evenings they turned it on to watch a DVD together as a family. On Saturdays they turned it on for four hours to get the washing machine running.

Life had become about adaptation. Their porchway is lined with solar powered bulbs that charge in the sun. They all wake at sunrise to make best use of the daylight. Their fridge – redundant without continuous power – functioned as a bookshelf for 20-year-old Leidianne Ruiz-Vera’s college materials. It is stacked full of encyclopedias and books on astrology, art history and geometry that Diana, determined her children succeed in education, has collected over the years.

“I couldn’t finish college education because of the fees,” said Diana. “But I wanted all my kids to learn and go to school. Even if their home is made of wood and tin, they should be proud of where they came from.”

On the day the Guardian visited the Ruiz family in mid-July, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), the island’s embattled, sole electric provider, was in the midst of another scandal. As the Puerto Rican government begins the process of privatising the bankrupt company in around $9bn debt, it was announced its newly appointed CEO, Rafael Díaz Granados, had been granted a $750,000 annual salary.

After initially attempting to defend the amount, Granados left the job after just one day in office. He was the fifth Prepa CEO to depart in the space of a year, amid corruption allegations and accusations of serious mismanagement.

The authority did not put up an official for interview despite multiple requests.

“It’s an indignity,” said Jose Ruiz Gonzalez. “The country is broke. And all the government is doing is cutting here, cutting there, laying people off, and then using the savings to executives and lawyers and exorbitant private contracts.”

After the Guardian raised the Ruiz family’s case with local Prepa officials, their power was eventually reconnected at the end of July. It has since been cut off twice again but was restored last week. Prepa officials say around 250 households remain without power on the island. The agency hopes to restore power to the remaining groups by this week.

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Jose Luis Gonzalez and Jose Ralat from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority pull a fallen line while restoring power to a home. Photograph: Angel Valentin for the Guardian

A few miles across the valley from the Ruiz family’s home, a crew of Prepa linesman were battling the overgrowth to restore power to another household high in the mountains.

This group of six men have worked six-day weeks, on 14-hour shifts, since Hurricane Maria hit. They are all exhausted. “We leave for work under the cover of darkness, and return home after the sun sets,” said Heriberto Velez, the group’s supervisor.

They had restored power to this farmhouse a month ago. It had taken three days, wading through long grass peppered with fire ants and trees littered with wasp nests, to connect a new line. But a falling tree had knocked out their work earlier in the week, and so they were forced to return, driving their ageing service trucks and a 1978 Jeep along the precarious mountain roads for over an hour.

Their day’s repair work underlined how fragile the island’s power system remains. In May, a former Prepa director warned it would take an additional $9bn to modernize the grid, which relies on infrastructure around three times older than the industry average.

The linesman here were also furious at the government’s decision to hand over part of the restoration work to a number of private companies, claiming their counterparts were paid higher wages (Prepa linesman are paid $20 an hour) for doing the same work.

“We’ve had no holidays,” Velez said. “We’re exhausted now – 10 months of doing this work.”

The entire crew, just like the Ruiz family, had sat at home petrified as another tropical weather front approached the island earlier in the week. Reports had initially indicated that Beryl could hit Puerto Rico as a category two hurricane, but it was eventually downgraded to a tropical storm, leading to flash flooding and temporary power outages across the island.

“The system is so sensitive. If another hurricane hit it would just be terrible,” said Velez as his crew chainsawed the surrounding foliage and hoisted the line back into position. “I don’t even want to think about it, to be honest.”

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