Hurricane Irma Underscores Puerto Rico's Crumbling Infrastructure
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Forecasters now say that Irma will be near South Florida by Sunday. We'll have updates throughout the weekend. The storm skirted Puerto Rico two days ago, and more than half people there are still without power. Some may be without electricity for weeks. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from San Juan that while Irma didn't hit as hard as expected, it underscored the crumbling state of the public infrastructure there.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Trees and power lines are down all over Puerto Rico, including here in the capital, San Juan, although damage to buildings across most of the territory was minimal. Crews today moved through the streets, clearing branches with machetes. Wilfredo Adorno with a crew from the Department of Transportation says the electricity still hasn't come back in most of San Juan.
WILFREDO ADORNO: (Speaking Spanish).
BEAUBIEN: He says "it's returned in some places but not others." Officials from the national power company this afternoon said 865,000 customers on the island are still without electricity down from just over a million yesterday. And just over 600,000 customers now have service. Miguel Soto-Class is not one of those ones with power.
MIGUEL SOTO-CLASS: Yeah, this is the first...
BEAUBIEN: His office is on the 10th floor of a historic art deco building in Old San Juan. We trudge up the stairwell because the elevators of course aren't working. Soto-Class is the president of the Center for a New Economy. Finally we settle into his unairconditioned office. He says Irma is illustrating how fragile Puerto Rico is right now. The territory has been slipping economically for a decade. Residents have been fleeing to the mainland U.S. for work. Puerto Rico essentially declared bankruptcy earlier this year because of billions of dollars in debt, and its infrastructure is falling apart.
SOTO-CLASS: That's why, you know, in a situation like this where the storm really didn't hit us, it still is causing a catastrophic event of, you know, the possibility of weeks and weeks without power. It is a bit surreal, but unfortunately I think we've become desensitized to it here because we've lived with it for so long.
BEAUBIEN: Officials say that 8 of Puerto Rico's 9 high-voltage power lines were damaged in the hurricane, and they're not sure how long it's going to take to fix them. Puerto Rico's finances are now under the control of a control board appointed by Congress. In order to try to get the island's debt under control, government workers have been laid off, and maintenance on the power grid has been deferred. Soto-Class says all of these problems are snowballing in Puerto Rico.
SOTO-CLASS: The Electric Power Authority's a great example. They have had to cut spending, and parts of the area where they have cut spending is maintenance. And so when you have a storm like this, then, you know, that kind of comes back to bite you.
BEAUBIEN: Even the governor, Ricardo Rossello, today in a press conference said that much of the electrical problems on the island right now are because of archaic and poorly maintained infrastructure.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
RICARDO ROSSELLO: (Speaking Spanish).
BEAUBIEN: But the governor said right now is not the time to talk about blame for why Puerto Rico has these problems. He says he's focused on getting electricity back on as quickly as possible and finding the money down the road to revitalize the island's failing power grid. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "THE LONE PISTOLERO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.