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Hundreds of thousands of people in Puerto Rico still have no electricity

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people still have no electricity nine days after Hurricane Fiona. In many communities, patience is running thin with the island's electric utility company to the extent that some cities and towns are starting to take power restoration into their own hands. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: After Fiona, Ricky Mendez, the mayor of the western coastal town of Isabela, let it be known that if Puerto Rico's electric company hadn't restored power to his town within a week, he would form his own brigades to do it. The electric company threatened legal action, but that didn't stop him.

RICKY MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: On Monday, he was supervising about 20 workers, many of them former electric utility employees, as they replaced several fallen electrical lines and made other patches to his town's grid.

MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I put the call out for workers, and people responded," he said. "I feel satisfied because my town now has a little bit of hope that they'll get through this." He said he's gotten calls from many elderly residents in his town, afraid they would be waiting months for power like they did after Hurricane Maria five years ago.

MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "This storm was not like Hurricane Maria," Mendez said. "The damage has not been nearly as bad, and yet the electric utility company has been slow to respond." Even before this week, there has been widespread discontent on Puerto Rico with the island's electric utility, Luma Energy. It's the private firm the government hired last year to take over the publicly run grid, which was in shambles after decades of neglect, corruption and then Hurricane Maria. When it took over, Luma warned that strengthening the grid would take years. But patience with the company very quickly ran out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: In the days since the storm, protest songs have emerged. "My stove's not working," this plena musician sang on Monday night. "I don't have cold water. They're lying about how many people have their power back."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Luma can go to hell," he sings. Officials from Luma say they are actually making rapid progress on restoring power, given how fragile the grid is. After first refusing to predict how long restoration would take, the firm now says more than three-quarters of the island should have power by Friday. Daniel Hernandez, a top Luma official, said at a briefing this week that the firm is working closely with the government agency that runs the island's power plants and asked people to stay calm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: In a statement on Monday night, Luma also pleaded with local officials not to take grid repairs into their own hands at the risk of setting the restoration effort back and of injury to untrained people. But many mayors are tapping into the large contingent of former government line workers, who have intimate knowledge of the labyrinth and grid, but who refused to work for Luma after the private firm took over. William Miranda Torres is the mayor of Caguas, one of the island's larger cities.

WILLIAM MIRANDA TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "This is not about taking work from Luma," the mayor said. "It's about surveying the power lines, finding out where the problems are and making small fixes so that when the power comes back, families aren't waiting around for days or weeks." In the town of Isabela, Carmen Rosa Gonzalez (ph), who's 83, has been waiting nine days in the stifling heat of her small house, along with her 85-year-old husband. He uses an oxygen machine.

CARMEN ROSA GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Without his oxygen," Gonzalez said, "he's starting to cough a lot." And it's starting to scare her. She said she doesn't care how she gets power back, whether Luma restores it or her mayor does. She just needs it back. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Isabela, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELLO METEOR'S "PARADISE DEPTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.