SAN JUAN – More than 450,000 customers of Puerto Rico’s state-run electricity company remain without power four months after the devastating passage of Hurricane Maria, a human and economic tragedy for the population in the more remote parts of the island.
The interim director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (AEE), Justo Gonzalez, said Monday that between 450,000 and 460,000 of its customers remain without electricity service and he said he could not provide a date by which all of the US commonwealth’s 3.5 million residents will have recovered their power.
“We’re finding greater damage than we had expected,” said Gonzalez in a radio interview, adding that a leap forward in recovery efforts is anticipated for February, although he did not mention any percentages or deadline dates.
The situation now is that just 67.5 percent of AEE customers had recovered their service by last weekend, marking the four-month anniversary of Maria’s passage, leaving some 60 people dead and causing some $94 billion in damage, according to government estimates.
The island’s infrastructure was almost completely destroyed, especially AEE’s grid, and this with the firm already facing a dicey financial situation and unable to pay its roughly $9 billion debt.
Gonzalez said that one of the reasons why the electricity recovery process has been so slow is that the necessary materials are lacking for restoring the island’s electricity infrastructure.
“Just yesterday a ship arrived loaded with materials, and so we’d like to know what we have available to work with,” said Gonzalez, adding that he is perfectly well aware of the suffering being experienced by hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who are still without power.
The most seriously affected portion of the island, he said, is the southeast, especially the municipalities of Maunabo, Yabucoa and Naguabo.
Congress approved an emergency loan of almost $5 billion for Hurricane Maria aid, but the funds will not be disbursed until the San Juan government can prove that it has no money.
To do that, an audit must be conducted of about 1,000 bank accounts held by the Puerto Rican government holding some $7 billion.
The state-run Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF) says, however, that the funds have a limited range of uses, since they are federal funds and earmarked for the payment of the island’s massive debt as it proceeds with its financial restructuring process.