Puerto Rico mayors clash with Luma Energy over power restoration
Desperate mayors in Puerto Rico are clashing with Luma Energy, the private Canada-US power transmission and distribution company, over how to restore power to areas that remain in the dark nine days after Hurricane Fiona triggered an island-wide blackout.
Speaking to NBC News, two Luma officials praised the company for embarking on “one of the fastest power restorations” in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, noting its efforts to revitalize near the two third of Puerto Rico in just over a week.
Most of the customers who have been reconnected to the power grid are in the northeast, where the storm caused less damage, leaving mayors in southern and western regions with little cause for celebration.
Nearly two-thirds of electricity consumers in Aguadilla still have no power, Mayor Julio Roldán Concepción said in Spanish.
Worried about the deterioration of the quality of life of his constituents and the long process of restoring electricity to his city, Roldán Concepción was among the first mayors to create his own brigade of workers and experts to bring back the streetlights and cables where they were. belong. The idea was to help Luma rebuild as much as possible so he could just focus on re-energizing the system.
The brigade began moving cables hanging from the tops of houses and tangled between trees two days ago after receiving a letter from Luma giving mayors the go-ahead to do so, Roldán Concepción said. The letter also said the collaboration between the mayors and Luma would be formalized through a “memorandum of understanding”.
When Roldán Concepción and other island mayors embarking on similar efforts obtained a copy of the memorandum, they discovered that it limited the city’s efforts to debris removal and traffic control, work that most municipalities were already doing.
Melissa Pueyo, Luma’s key account manager, said in Spanish, “There’s no need for a week after an emergency, after a hurricane, for other people to be working on our power lines. Under no circumstances does this is not safe at this time, nor responsible, that anyone other than us is touching the power lines.”
Pueyo said Luma “does remote activations,” which can put the lives of Luma squads and employees at risk. She also raised concerns about the restoration of electrical infrastructure by local brigades in a way that “is not in line with Luma Energy’s work plan”.
Most of the workers hired by the mayors to operate the municipal brigades are former employees of the Puerto Rico Power Authority, which is in charge of generating electricity on the island. Many of those former employees worked repairing power lines before Luma took over the island’s power transmission and distribution last year.
Over the weekend, workers hired by the mayor of Bayamón, Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz, “raised fallen power lines that were not live to speed up the work of Luma crews and installed new poles in certain areas,” according to a press release on Tuesday.
Roads in rural areas “are now free of debris and with free transit access for Luma Brigades,” Rivera Cruz said in a statement, adding that “there is no longer an excuse” for Luma to does not restore power to about a third of Bayamón. , which is still in the dark.
Juan Hernández de Luma said that while local brigade workers may have experience working with Puerto Rico’s power grid, their efforts to restore power lines and streetlights “endanger Puerto Rico’s economic recovery,” as they may not meet Luma’s standards.
“They are putting federal funds at risk that could be lost if due process is not followed to document damage as required” by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Hernández, vice president of Luma projects.
“We don’t want to go into cycles of temporary repairs that don’t meet our safety standards,” he said.
Pueyo de Luma said “speed is not necessarily the way to go”.
“It’s that same approach of fixing things with duct tape and gum that got us here,” she said, pointing to the fragility of the power grid, which has been repaired and never rebuilt in ways permanent after being devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
However, 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 fatal accidents with generators or candles used to light dark homes.
Despite these incidents, Pueyo said, Luma’s efforts to quickly restore power “have been to preserve life and ensure the safety of all of our customers.”
Hernández said the setbacks delayed Luma’s emergency response plans. Torrential rains in Fiona flooded power stations and caused landslides that destroyed roads and bridges, preventing Luma from reaching hard-hit areas.
More than 400,000 electricity customers out of nearly 1.5 million – 27% – were still without power as of Tuesday evening.
Among them are the people of Naguado. The city was in complete darkness until Monday, when Luma energized its urban center and community health center.
But, unsure of how many more days it would take to restore power to the rest of her city, Mayor Miraidaliz Rosario is hiring her own brigade, despite not having Luma’s approval, her doorman said. -speaker, Odalis Zayas.
Under Puerto Rico’s municipal code, mayors like Roldán Concepción and Rosario are authorized to “perform all procedures and tasks necessary to normalize or restore the electrical power system.”
“Our plan is to maintain the work our brigades are doing,” Roldán Concepción said.
In Villalba, the brigade dubbed “Villalba Power” began unplugging power lines tangled in ravaged trees. Ninety-eight percent of the city has no electricity, Mayor Luis Javier Hernandez said.
“Our war is with senior Luma leaders who don’t feel pressure from our staff,” Hernandez said on Facebook Live on Tuesday as he oversaw the work of “Villalba Power.”
Luma swore to restore power to up to 91% of all customers by Friday. Hernandez said he was confident Puerto Rico would be fully fueled in less than a month.
But rebuilding the power grid with permanent works could take years, as the system suffered more than $1 billion in damage, according to preliminary estimates.
“We’re talking over 50% of our infrastructure has been damaged,” Hernandez said.