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Puerto Rico declares an emergency over the dire condition of its power supply


Puerto Rico has declared a state of emergency over the dire condition of its power supply. Hundreds of thousands of people there have been experiencing outages in recent weeks. The government authority and private company that jointly handle the generation, transmission and distribution of power on the island have said the issues are due to mechanical failures. Danica Coto is a reporter for The Associated Press based in San Juan, and she joins us now.


DANICA COTO: Hi. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are you seeing there? What has life been like?

COTO: It's been very difficult. People - they're anxious. They're exhausted. You know, they've had enough. These outages have worsened in recent months starting around June, and then August and September are the peak months of demand. So of course, with the record heat that we've been having, a lot of people have used more power. But as well generational units are being kicked offline. Failures ranging from water chemistry issues to boilers not working to many other things, you know, are causing a lot of outages across the island.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about the impact this is having. I mean, how are people on the island going to cope?

COTO: Sure. Well, there's a lot of consequences. Puerto Rico has a high number of diabetics, a high number of asthmatics. You know, so you have people who depend on oxygen, including COVID patients, and people who also use dialysis. This service interrupts the home treatment that they receive as well. Schools and workplaces have closed, and some people are losing money because they can't work. And in addition, these are people - some of them - who are still struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Like, that hurricane hasn't ended for some people. They're awaiting reconstruction of their home. They're awaiting better electricity, so you have this big impact on not only people's health but also works and school.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are those responsible for power in Puerto Rico saying about why it's failing and what needs to be done to fix it? I mean, they say it's mechanical. What does that mean exactly?

COTO: Lack of maintenance is the main issue according to officials here. So basically, there's about eight generating units, and about four of them are in operation. And they're generating only 39% of their capacity, so you have aging infrastructure that hasn't been replaced. You know, many of these units are scheduled to be retired, so the maintenance was deferred by several years. And in addition, you have the retirement of a lot of experienced employees, so those two coupled with, you know, an increase in demand in these recent months are to blame. It's about a 78% drop in maintenance for these generational units, so that gives you an idea of how, you know, bad their state is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it also mismanagement? I mean, we've seen, you know, obviously in Puerto Rico, in many different sectors, you know, accusations that things are just not run very well.

COTO: Indeed, and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which owns both the transmission and distribution and the generation - which is state-owned, you know, has long been known for not being non-efficient, corruption, not handling, you know, what they're supposed to handle in the moment well. And so you have that coupled with aging infrastructure coupled with hurricanes, even with Maria (ph), the earthquakes, the pandemic and a debt of some $9 billion that they're trying to restructure. So all this, you know, just has led us to where we are today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should say - obviously, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory - that U.S. legislators have been looking into this. A congressional committee held a hearing last week to learn more about the outages. Where do you expect that to go?

COTO: Well, I would say a lot of people are very frustrated because things have gone nowhere. I mean, there's been complaints piling up. There's been constant outages. Legislators were extremely upset and frustrated, I would say, with the CEO of Luma, which is a company that runs the transmission and distribution system in Puerto Rico. They said that he did not really answer their questions. And the biggest question is, you know, why exactly are these outages occurring? That's one of the answers they want. How many employees are in maintenance? How many are in other divisions? How many of these employees make, you know, $200,000 a year? And what are their compensation packages like? So there's still a lot of unanswered questions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Danica Coto, reporter with The Associated Press.

Thank you very much.

COTO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.