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Puerto Ricans repair power lines themselves

The 2018 hurricane season begins as Puerto Rico still struggles to recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria that hit the island in 2017. CNN's Leyla Santiago reports.

Posted: Jun 2, 2018 7:53 AM
Updated: Jun 2, 2018 8:06 AM

Sitting outside his one-room home, Miguel Angel Vera Gonzalez admits he may get old, but the view does not.

With his legs crossed, and a hat bearing the Puerto Rican flag atop his head, the thin 83-year-old man looks out at the mountains he has always called home. The landscape brings Vera a sense of tranquility.

That peace is interrupted by the hum of a machine that sits just a few feet away. It's a power generator that Vera depends on to power the device he uses four times a day to cope with his asthma.

He's one of 11,000 US citizens living without power eight months after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island. The Category 4 storm wiped out the US territory's power grid, leaving the entire island in the dark in September.

"I don't know. I have no answer for that," Vera responds when asked when he expects to have his power restored.

With the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane season under way as of Friday, the desperation among those still without power had led some to take deadly risks to get it back.

"We feel abandoned," said Charley Reyes from atop a power pole on a winding street in the hills of Utuado. He's restoring power to his neighbors -- more than a dozen so far -- even though he has no experience in working with electrical lines.

Using empty water bottles to encase wires he shouldn't touch and as neighbors watch from the ground, Reyes cuts, scrapes and ties off wires with bold confidence -- surprising since he had only a one-day crash course in power restoration from a retired power worker.

"You see it in the eyes of the people, the frustration," said Utuado's mayor, Ernesto Irizarry. "Every day I go and start the day and talk to God: 'Lend me the power and the mind.'"

The mayors

Irizarry says he doesn't feel his city is prepared for another storm -- and he's far from alone.

When CNN contacted the mayors of Utuado, Arroyo, Bayamon, San Juan, Añasco, Salinas and Toa Baja, they agreed the vulnerable power grid would be the biggest issue if the island were hit soon.

None of the mayors confidently told CNN they were fully prepared for the next storm. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin and Bayamon Mayor Ramon Luis Rivera both said they were "as prepared as can be," given the island's vulnerability.

"If I told you we were ready, that would be a lie," said Arroyo Mayor Eric Bachier Roman.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects the season, which began June 1, to be "near-or above normal" -- but not to the same degree seen last year.

Bachier Roman, and Rivera, quickly pointed out that municipalities are still in recovery mode.

An aerial view reveals hundreds of homes still depending on blue tarps to provide shelter in homes. While the US Army Corps of Engineers has completed the majority of debris removal, the cleanup continues.

While Arroyo is back to 100% in power restoration, its mayor said to be prepared for another storm, he would need to be able to depend on the water, generators, communication and relief supplies he currently does not have.

"We need much more," says Toa Baja Mayor Betito Marquez Garcia.

Marquez Garcia hopes to have six sirens fully installed by the end of June, possibly early July. He believes the communication tool could be valuable if another storm wipes out all communication again as Maria did.

A 'weak or fragile' power grid

Should another hurricane hit Puerto Rico, there is one certainty: its power grid will collapse.

"I think the most honest thing to say about our grid is that it's weak or fragile," said Walt Higgins, the new CEO of the Puerto Rico Power Authority (PREPA), in an interview with CNN.

Puerto Rico has faced the longest lasting power outage in modern US history, according to FEMA.

Most of the island currently has power, and among the thousands still waiting for it, Higgins says says most, though not all, should be able to turn lights back on within the next three to four weeks.

While they've been working on power restoration for months, Higgins admits, PREPA officials are still trying to identify who doesn't have power.

The bigger challenge, however, is rebuilding a power grid that was never built to withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane under a power authority that is $9 billion in debt.

Just weeks ago, an island-wide blackout was caused by a fallen tree, according to PREPA.

"There is a lot to do. Anybody that ever goes into an emergency thinking they've got it under control is wrong," Higgins told CNN.

If a storm were to move toward Puerto Rico today, Higgins said PREPA is more prepared than it was for Hurricane Maria because hundreds of more crews are on the ground, and more are on the way.

"There's no magic wand. There's no silver bullet," he said. "You just day by day, by day, have to do all the things it takes so that over time PREPA will become the utility that the customers want here."

FEMA: Faster response next time

Showing off a warehouse full of supplies in San Juan, FEMA Federal Coordination Officer Mike Byrne stands by the agency's initial response to Hurricane Maria.

The FEMA Public Assistance Program has committed $2.4 billion in funding for emergency protective measures and debris removal in Puerto Rico, according to FEMA.

Byrne admits there is room for improvement.

"Absolutely. No doubt. No doubt," he insists when asked if FEMA will be ready for a faster response in the event of another hurricane on the island.

A big difference planned for future response, he explains, is more stockpiling of relief supplies.

Compared to Hurricane Maria preparations, FEMA plans to have 6.5 times more water, six times more generators, and eight times more tarps. They've also outlined a distribution plan to get the supplies to residents in need, something that hampered the recovery after Maria.

Emergency plans, drills while residents wait, wonder

As the government of Puerto Rico touts emergency management plans and upcoming island-wide drills, it's also been forced to acknowledge mistakes and lessons learned from the response to Hurricane Maria.

After CNN asked about specific changes for potential disasters in the future, Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosello, pointed to plans to immediately call for mutual aid assistance in power restoration. After Maria, Puerto Rico waited more than a month to make the request.

The governor is also questioning the method of counting deaths, after a new Harvard study and a CNN investigation.

Harvard researchers believe 70 times more people than what Puerto Rico's government reported have died as a result of Hurricane Maria. Based on trends researchers found after surveying more than 100 barrios, or neighborhoods, across the island and talking to 10,000 people, Harvard researchers believe Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of at least 4,600 people. The official Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rico stands at 64.

"There really is no real logical explanation for us wanting to pin down the numbers." We want the real number to come out. We had a protocol that was sub-par and we recognize it, and now toward the future we want to make sure that its effective and can be a model for other nations, as well," Gov. Rosello said during a press conference in San Juan.

As federal and local officials try to identify ways to improve coordination for the next storm, Puerto Ricans, like Vera, are left to wait and wonder.

As Vera waits on his front porch, his hope is power will return before the next storm comes.

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