Six months since Maria hit, frustrating progress on restoring Puerto Rico's power

Key Points
  • Six months after Hurricane Maria, approximately 121,000 residents remain without power.
  • Power trucks and a donated mobile solar generator finally arrive in coastal towns still reeling from the aftermath of the storm.
  • There are demands for action and an inquiry into allegations of corruption against the island's power authority.
Aida Alicea (center) with her parents, sister and brother taken on Oct 23, 2016, about a year before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.
Dawn Giel | CNBC

Six months after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, approximately 121,000 residents remain without power.

Progress has been slow and frustrating for those who live in Maria's path. Throughout the island, the nearly Category 5 hurricane caused widespread destruction, flooding and mudslides that destroyed crops, wiped out telecommunications systems and decimated the island's antiquated power grid.

On some fronts, there has been improvement. Power has been restored to nearly 92 percent of customers, and about 95 percent of cell sites are back in service, according to the most recent Department of Energy and FCC reports.

However, some areas are just now seeing signs of hope.

Aida Alicea, 71, lives in the southeastern coastal resort town of Humacao, Puerto Rico, after moving there from New York 17 years ago to be closer to her parents. Alicea's brother, 70, and sister, 69, also live in the same neighborhood.

Alicea and her siblings have been trying to take care of their father, who is 95 and has Alzheimer's, and their mother, 92, who has health issues. Over the last six months, the family has battled sporadic water service, a pinkeye outbreak that required a one-hour drive to see a doctor, and issues with filling daily medications. They've had no electricity since the hurricane.

They rotate a set of power generators every two hours to provide power to their parents' home. About a month ago, Alicea's generator had a massive malfunction that burned out all of the electrical outlets in use at the time. Repairs took four days, and now the generator is only being run twice a day.

"We have tried to stay positive but it's been very, very difficult to stay positive," Alicea told CNBC. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would live without power for six months. It has taken a toll psychologically on the people here," she said.

On Thursday, seven Kentucky Power trucks rolled into Alicea's town. They were the first electric repair vehicles she's seen in her area since Hurricane Maria hit. "It's really changed the morale for all of us," Alicea said.

A donated mobile solar generator

A mobile solar powered generator.
Dawn Giel | CNBC

In Yabucoa, where Hurricane Maria made landfall, the nonprofit disaster relief organization All Hands and Hearts has set up in an abandoned school where about 90 people are currently living and working.

The 75 volunteers and 15 staff are focused on the community's largest immediate need: rebuilding damaged roofs. The temporary tarps residents had been given weren't adequate to withstand the hot sun and water collecting from constant rainfall, which was leading to failures.

"We did a month of assessment of Puerto Rico, because the scale of what happened here was so large," said Johnathan Falk, the on-site operations manager for the nonprofit.

"We made a decision early on that we weren't going to tarp, we were going to rebuild because that's what was most beneficial to the homeowners here," Falk said.

In addition to repairing homes, the group also fixed up the neighboring baseball field and built a playground. Schools in the area are currently only open for half days, due to the lack of electricity.

The organization had been using a diesel generator that consumed around 35 gallons of fuel every two days. But then, late last week, it received a donated solar powered generator. Falk calls it "a real life saver" that will help cut down on costs.

The $80,000 mobile solar generator, paid for with donations by American artists Kara Walker, Ari Marcopoulos and others, was originally brought to the island about a month after the storm in a coordinated effort between the Coastal Marine Resource Center and the Hispanic Federation. It was initially used to power essential buildings, including the emergency room at a hospital in Isabela.

Thomas Meyer, Owner of Las Dunas guesthouse in Isabela which doubles as volunteer hub for Coastal Marine Resource Center (l), Mayor Rafael Surillo Ruiz, Mayor of Yabucoa (c) and Walter Meyer, Coastal Marine Resource Center Co-founder and Strategy Director (r).
Source: Coastal Marine Resource Center

Earlier this month, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., worked with the Hispanic Federation and Coastal Marine Resource Center to bring the solar generator to Yabucoa. After consulting with Mayor Rafael Ruiz, they decided to move it to the facility where All Hands and Hearts is located. It was officially installed on Sunday.

Demands for action

Velazquez, who grew up in Yabucoa, is hosting a roundtable discussion in Washington with lawmakers and stakeholders on Tuesday to discuss the status of recovery efforts and policy priorities.

The congresswoman, along with other members of Congress and activists for Puerto Rico, also plans to take part in a rally in front of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's headquarters in Washington to demand accountability for inadequate recovery efforts.

The group's demands will include "more decisive, effective and urgent action from federal agencies, in addition to oversight and additional resources from the White House and Congress to resolve the crisis caused by Hurricane Maria," according to a press release on Monday.

Complicating the recovery efforts further have been recent allegations of rampant corruption and mismanagement in the power restoration process against Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority. The House Committee on Natural Resources announced last week that it is conducting an investigation into the allegations as part of its oversight process.

"The latest allegations of corruption and mismanagement raise serious questions regarding PREPA's internal controls and ability to completely manage power restoration in Puerto Rico," Rep. Rob Bishop, the chairman of the House committee, wrote in a letter to PREPA's interim executive director.

"Billions of taxpayer dollars are pledged to help Puerto Rico, but a lack of faith in Puerto Rico's institutions remains a major barrier to recovery," the letter said.

The committee has asked PREPA to preserve all records, documents, data and communications of any kind, regardless of format, that relate to or refer to "any allegations that PREPA employees, officials, or contractors demanded or received bribes, gifts, or improper consideration of any kind in exchange for restoring power to businesses, residences, or government agencies and municipalities."

PREPA's officials were given a deadline of no later than 5:00 p.m. ET on March 26 to respond to the committee's inquiries.