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Pole to pole, linemen hard at work restoring power in Puerto Rico
By Leila MACOR
Ponce, Puerto Rico (AFP) Dec 5, 2017

For Puerto Rico's exhausted electricity crews, their greatest joy is hearing the cry: "We've got power!"

They've been working 12-hour shifts, six days a week since Hurricane Maria hit the island on September 20, shredding the US commonwealth's rickety power grid.

"It's tough," says Daniel Velez, 42, rivers of sweat streaming down his face from under his yellow helmet.

Velez is part of a six-man crew, hauling two cranes up a steep dirt road cut through the low, jungle-covered hills around Ponce, a city on Puerto Rico's southern coast.

Their task: untangling a mess of downed poles and cables from torn tree branches and other remnants of the catastrophic storm.

Once the debris is cleared, they drill a hole, put in a new post, and string new cables. It's a job that takes nearly the entire day, toiling in intense heat and humidity.

And there are 50,000 more poles to go.

Yet Velez says he's energized by the challenge.

"The whole world is watching and there are a lot of grateful people," he said.

Velez is one of more than 3,300 utility workers who have put their shoulders to the daunting task of restoring power to Puerto Rico and the island's 3.4 million people.

They come from Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority (AEE), the US Army Corps of Engineers, and more than 60 local companies.

It's a colossal task -- exhausting and seemingly unending.

"How else do you think I got these bags under my eyes?" asked a worker at an AEE warehouse in Ponce.

And yet, many Puerto Ricans are still without electricity and as of Sunday, the island's power-generating capacity was only 58 percent what it was before the hurricane.

"Our power grid was very old," acknowledges Justo Gonzalez, the interim AEE director.

But, he says, "No power grid in the world would have survived something like that."

On top of everything else, the power authority is bankrupt -- $9 billion in debt -- and tainted by suspicions of corruption during the early phases of contracting for the reconstruction effort.

- Supply shortfalls -

Workers in the field have a more immediate problem: they do not have enough supplies.

They are recycling knocked down poles and damaged cables to make up for the shortfall.

"We don't have poles, we don't have insulators, we don't have cables, we don't have gear, nor cranes, nor work baskets," said Angel Figueroa Jaramillo, head of the main union representing the electrical workers.

"There are places where there are three crane operators but only one crane -- one crane that has to be treated with much loving care because it's old," he said.

Gonzalez said the island's power authority used most of what it had in stock to repair the electrical grid after Hurricane Irma, which delivered a glancing blow to Puerto Rico two weeks before Maria.

After Maria crashed ashore as a Category 4 hurricane, shipments of food, water and medicine were given priority at the island's ports over electrical gear.

Twenty days after the hurricane struck, the US Army Corps of Engineers ordered 50,000 electricity poles and 6,500 miles (10,460 kilometers) of cable for Puerto Rico.

Gonzalez said that 6,000 posts will soon be arriving every three days.

Figueroa, the union leader, is worried about the delay.

"We don't know where those posts are coming from, or if they're on a trip around the world," he said.

- 'It's emotional' -

Velez recalls the first time his crew restored power to an area.

"It was impressive," he says. "It fills you with pride to see the happiness of the people, and everyone applauding you, people crying. It's emotional."

In Gurabo, an urban area on the eastern side of the island, another brigade of utility workers labor to restore power to a street.

As night falls, residents watch from their porches as the men work.

Maria Carrion, a 64-year-old retiree, has been waiting for the lights to go on for two and a half months.

"Oh thank God, that transformer is beautiful! It's gorgeous," she exclaims.

The first thing she's going to do, she says, will be to wash clothes. "And cut the grass."

"Well, not at night, no," she reconsiders, considering the wealth of possibilities. "Better to turn on a fan, and I'll put all my water bottles in the freezer and I am going to have a lot, a lot of ice."

"And after watching television, I am not going to sleep."

Gonzalez, the power authority's interim chief, is not so lucky. His home still doesn't have lights.

Big changes for Florida with mass Puerto Rican immigration
Orlando (AFP) Dec 4, 2017
Cristina Sanchez is one of thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing their hurricane-ravaged island for Florida, a mass migration set to shape the southern US state as much as migrants from communist Cuba in the late 20th century. Sanchez left the island with three suitcases, her small dog - and no plans to return. As her flight departed the capital San Juan, she glanced out the window at what ... read more

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