Last customers being reconnected to Puerto Rico power grid

Danica Coto, Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Crews shut down generators Wednesday that have powered an island off Puerto Rico's coast — the last customers to be reconnected to the U.S. territory's main power system 18 months after Hurricane Maria destroyed the grid.

The Electric Power Authority said it connected an underwater cable to Culebra despite wariness from the more than 1,000 people who live on the island, which is popular with tourists.

"One year and six months relying solely on a generator that if the gasoline runs out, we don't have power," said Culebra resident Grace Monel, adding that people were hit with several outages a month that have damaged home appliances. "It has taken so long."

She said she worries the electrical grid is still fragile, noting that two major outages were reported on the main island of Puerto Rico this week alone. Officials said a cat was responsible for the first outage, which left thousands of people without power in the capital of San Juan on Saturday. Another outage, on Tuesday, was blamed on an iguana that made contact with a 115,000-volt bar, leaving some 100,000 people without power.

Jose Sepulveda, the power company's transmission and distribution director, acknowledged to The Associated Press that the current system, which serves 1.5 million customers, is a patch-up job following the Sept. 20, 2017, hurricane, and that it needs further repairs and updates.

"Some codes were ignored because of time and lack of equipment," he said, adding that safety was never compromised. "Now that the emergency is over, we will start rebuilding the system."

Sepulveda said he did not know how long that process would take, saying only that it would be "months" as crews inspect a grid that was destroyed by Maria and rebuilt with help from the U.S. government and millions of dollars in federal funds. He said that in some cases, cables of a substandard caliber were used to help restore power across Puerto Rico, which was fully energized by August 2018, nearly a year after a storm that caused more than an estimated $100 billion in damage.

In addition, officials will be installing three backup generators in Culebra to replace the three that are being retired. They were operated and fully funded by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1 and Sepulveda said the grid is not ready for another major storm. If one hits, "We will experience something similar to what happened in 2017," he said.