VEGA BAJA, PUERTO RICO — “I thought I was never going to see light in my home again,” said Elsia Cruz Torruellas, 65, as she stood on the front porch of her beige house, looking out at the electrical wires that had just been lifted from the ground and reconnected by a man she had known for only a few minutes.
Alberto de Jesus Mercado, the man who restored her power, is a 59-year-old electrician and environmental activist who has taken it upon himself to bring power back to hundreds of Puerto Ricans who were still in the dark.
Mercado is known colloquially as “Tito Kayak.” Tito, short for Alberto, and Kayak, in reference to the many activist protests he has launched from a kayak. Kayak has been a certified electrician for more than 30 years.
It had been six months since Cruz Torruellas’ home in Vega Baja lost power during Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Maria came through 14 days later, toppled power posts and brought electrical wires down across her front yard and driveway, trapping her and her family inside the home. The family was among the 3.3 million Puerto Ricans who lost power during hurricanes Irma and Maria, which severely damaged the island’s electrical grid and initiated the longest blackout in United States history. The entire island lost an estimated 1,248 million hours of potential energy consumption.
Six months after the storm, approximately 121,000 residents were still in the dark. By June 1, the beginning of Puerto Rico’s hurricane season, 11,000 people had no electricity.
“The cables didn’t let us leave the upstairs patio or the house,” said Torruellas’ daughter, Maritza Ramirez Cruz, 39. She and a cousin had to crawl underneath the cables to get out of the home. Once they did, she realized they wouldn’t be able to get the car out of the garage because a power pole had fallen on top of the metal fence on their property.
They walked down the block onto the main road and found some workers from the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, known in English as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), Puerto Rico’s main energy supplier.
They begged the PREPA employees to help move the downed wires, which would allow her mother to get out of the house and allow them to use their car.
“Six months after the storm, approximately 121,000 residents were still in the dark. By June 1, the beginning of Puerto Rico’s hurricane season, 11,000 people had no electricity.”
The workers moved the wires just enough to let the rest of their family into the yard and give them access to the garage. The men laid the wires between the pickets of the fence, stringing them mid-air across the front entrance of the house about five feet off the ground. That was the last time they saw anyone from the power authority.
“We practically had to bring them by force — after that they never came back,” Ramirez Cruz said.
For weeks, Cruz Torruellas called the power authority, trying to get workers to come fix the electrical pole that had fallen. It wasn’t safe for her 11-year-old grandson, Nahuel, to play in the yard.
“When [PREPA] would actually answer her call, they would tell her that the issue had already been reported,” Ramirez Cruz said. “Other times the call would ‘drop.’”
The power outage was extremely difficult for her mother. Many in Puerto Rico struggled with the loss of power, but Cruz Torruellas depends on the internet to do her work, which includes maintaining her blog and participating in writers workshops. She also homeschools Nahuel and, in order to keep him up to speed with the public school curriculum, needs to access online teaching materials.
Family friends Orlando González Claudio and his wife Rosa Villalonga told her about Kayak.
Kayak isn’t the only one taking it upon himself to restore power. Some of his friends help him every now and then and when they do, they refer to themselves as the “Electricistas En Acción,” or EEA, a play on the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, or AEE — the actual power company.
“The efforts that individuals make and the efforts that the government makes, I don’t think they’re parallel,” Kayak said.
But they aren’t the only ones who’ve felt like they need to step in. Desperation across Puerto Rico has forced plenty of people to pick up wires themselves.
NPR and The Associated Press have reported stories from San Sebastián de las Vegas del Pepino, on the far west side of the island, to Coamo, deep in the south, where tired Puerto Ricans are fed up with waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and construction crews to get to them.
Their workers include volunteers from police chiefs, former utility workers, teachers and accountants. They have managed to restore power to thousands of homes through large brigades.
But unlike those groups, Kayak goes out on jobs alone, save the extra set of hands he will recruit from the “EEA” for particularly difficult jobs. And he’s in places that supposedly already have electricity — places like Vega Baja, which the power company has marked as complete despite many still lacking power.
The First Connection
In mid-March, Kayak arrived at Cruz Torruellas’ home, distinguishable by its patterned accents painted in pink, same as her fence.
Kayak lives a minimalist lifestyle, partly due to a lack of resources. He doesn’t own a car, so he drives his daughter’s green Jeep Grand Cherokee and straps on a borrowed silver extension ladder with thick yellow ties to the roof rack. He uses a makeshift pulley system to extend the ladder by tugging on the straps, eliminating his need for a partner.
He said he knew right after the hurricanes that it would take months for the island to fully regain power.
“We can do this ourselves, for the community.”
Kayak is an independent contractor who has been performing electrical work since he was 14. He typically works for local businesses and sometimes gets one-time contracts from large corporations, but he currently spends most of his time restoring power to houses that still lack it following the storms.
He started a few weeks after Maria, reconnecting the home of an elderly woman in Manati, over an hour west of the capital, who had lost power during Irma. A friend asked Kayak to help her so she could use her dialysis machine.
Since then, Kayak has taken the government’s responsibility into his own hands.
“Geez, we can do this ourselves, for the community,’” he thought to himself. “It was so cool, the people were happy.”
Puerto Rico’s power grid continues to be discussed as a main reason for the island’s inability to regain and maintain electricity after the storms. Through the restoration process, sporadic blackouts have been a testament to the fragility of the commonwealth’s power grid.
“The electrical devastation was incredible, my God,” said Kayak, “One hundred percent of the electrical system collapsed.”
And even with power now restored for much of the island, there have been setbacks. A February explosion at an electric substation, which was blamed on mechanical failures, left northern parts of the island without power soon after they regained it through recovery efforts. The explosion was reported to have hit another two substations, extending the blackout further and inducing a loss of hundreds of megawatts of energy.
There are also frequent smaller neighborhood blackouts that aren’t reported. The Santurce district in the heart of San Juan had a blackout last over eight hours in mid-March. In April, another two major outages took power from Puerto Ricans. On April 12, as electrical crews attempted to clear land, a tree downed a main line to San Juan and left 870,000 customers without power. Not even a week later, on April 18, other reparation attempts threw the island back into a total blackout — the first since Hurricane Maria. The estimate from PREPA and other officials was that power would not be fully restored from Maria’s initial hit until May.
Kept In The Dark
In October, the American Public Power Association reported that the island needed 50,000 new utility poles and 6,500 miles of cables.
PREPA’s increasing debt ― $9 billion as of 2017 ― is due to years of mismanagement and has left the company running on equipment nearly three times older than the national industry average. This means the hurricane-damaged equipment that repair crews are attempting to fix has been long overdue for replacement.
With about 80 percent of the electrical grid destroyed, it will take time just to rebuild the system, especially in the mountainous regions, and reconnect every home to the grid.
“The Power Unified Command set a goal to have 90 to 95 percent restored by the end of March with others into April and May in the mountainous, hard-hit areas,” said Ken Higginbotham, who works in FEMA’s External Affairs.
As of July 6, FEMA spokesperson Juan A. Rosado-Reynes reported that 99.85 percent of power has been restored.
Puerto Ricans feared the restoration would not be completed before hurricane season began. The six-month season of winds and rain will make the already vulnerable system susceptible to falling again.
“I think that this government agency (PREPA) works in a very bureaucratic way. It has to pass information to FEMA, and, from FEMA, it passes information to those whom they decide can fix the problem. And that enlarges the process, making it inefficient, delayed,” said Kayak.
Reconnecting power in Manati made him realize that he could help bring power back for more people.
“I don’t have to go to FEMA or The Electric Power Authority,” he said. “Since I’m not with them, I just go directly there.”
When González Claudio and Villalonga called Kayak to tell him about Cruz Torruellas’ family’s situation, it didn’t take him long to get there.
“They let him know about what we were going through. All but two days had passed after they told him when he arrived to our surprise,” said her daughter Ramirez Cruz.
Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt crisis, which predated the storm, is another drag on rebuilding the power system. The island faces a double-digit unemployment rate and a declining population due to mass migration to the mainland. Forty percent of its population lives below the poverty line.
PREPA, which filed for bankruptcy in July 2017, is responsible for $9 billion of that debt.
The government-run PREPA, which is the only energy company on the island, has held a monopoly in Puerto Rico for nearly 80 years.
The entity relies on purchasing imported fossil fuels and burning oil to generate electricity, not only contributing to pollution but also forcing customers to pay rates that follow foreign oil prices. In 2014, PREPA was unable to pay for fuel. After many negotiations, the authority instituted unpopular bill increases to help pay for its debt while making no effort to move toward its long-awaited shift toward renewable energy.
“I don’t have to go to FEMA or The Electric Power Authority. Since I’m not with them, I just go directly there.”
In 2016, the Puerto Rican Senate asked the FBI to investigate PREPA for fuel purchasing irregularities. In January, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether PREPA had committed crimes “against the public interest,” following a United States Army Corps of Engineers report on construction materials PREPA was allegedly hoarding in a supply warehouse in Palo Seco. The supplies were supposed to be distributed equipment to help re-establish the island’s power grid, but PREPA reported the materials “out-of-stock.” Not having access to them has delayed the restoration process.
In January, Rosselló put forward a plan to privatize PREPA, which he argued would lower the island’s debt and make the power company more accountable.
“The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has become a heavy burden on our people, who are now hostage to its poor service and high cost,” Rosselló said. “What we know today as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority does not work and cannot continue to operate like this.”
According to The Associated Press, privatizing PREPA and allowing competitors to bid for the island’s customers would be the “largest restructuring of a public entity in U.S. history.”
Privatization works well in theory and sounds attractive to a large population of the Puerto Rican people, but only because they don’t understand the negative repercussions, said Ricardo Santos Ramos, former president of Puerto Rico’s Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union.
“There is not a single country in the world where privatizing electricity has lowered its cost,” he said, “Energy will be more expensive if it is private.”
Right now, he explained, PREPA sells energy at the price it costs to produce it.
“If we privatize it, the private company is going to sell us what costs them, plus an increase to make the profit we will give them,” Ramos said.
He is adamant that Puerto Rico, being an island, needs to have its own autonomous energy reserve. Independence from the foreign countries supplying fossil fuels, as well as autonomy from the U.S. mainland, would allow the island to become reliant on its own electricity and not need to wait for aid from the federal government.
Ramos believes that privatizing the power authority would not only raise costs for consumers but would move Puerto Rico further away from a long-promised shift to other forms of energy.
“Privatizing electrical power plants is to forever bury the possibility for us to make an orderly transition into renewable energy,” Ramos said.
Anna Sommer, an energy analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a group that studies economic issues dealing with energy and the environment, said that “PREPA can and should do better” when it comes to “promoting energy independence and affordability by aggressively pursuing energy-efficiency improvements and renewable-energy investments.”
Kayak’s minimalism carries over into his style. He is easily recognized under his dark, greying hair when he wears shirts bearing the logos of his various activist causes or having to do with his electrical work.
“People in Puerto Rico know me as an environmental activist. They don’t know that I am an electrician,” said Kayak. “People think that Fidel Castro, that [Hugo] Chávez sends me money and they state it openly on social media. ‘Look at that Chávez, at that Fidel! They sent him money,’ and they don’t know how hard it is for me to earn my daily bread.”
“People say, ‘Isn’t that the guy who’s always protesting around, starting revolutions? And now, turns out he’s an electrician,’” said Kayak.
One of his main environmental causes, Amigos del MAR, or “Friends of the Sea,” began a protest camp called Las Playas Son Pa’l Pueblo, “The Beaches Are for the People,” which is among the longest-running civil disobedience resistance camps in the U.S. Kayak and his friends established a large camping spot on a beach in San Juan, protesting in response to a large hotel company that wanted to buy the land and privatize the beach for its guests. MAR also stands for “Movimento Ambiental Revolucionario ― or “Revolutionary Environmental Movement.”
Kayak is also known for protesting the U.S. military’s acquisition of land on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for a training camp and bombing range. In 2000, Kayak flew to New York and climbed onto the crown of the Statue of Liberty during the New York marathon to hang banners that said “Peace Vieques.”
Kayak sees his work restoring electrical service to dozens of homes, free of charge, as an extension of his activism. Most of the supplies he uses to install power he finds in enormous junk piles that have accumulated on the sides of roads since Maria.
“Sometimes it is as simple as taking a cable, raising it up and pinning it, that’s it,” he said. “Even today, at six months — or more than six months — there is still a lot of material lying in streets and they don’t pick it up.”
He does his work almost exclusively with borrowed equipment and the tools he has bought over the years from his contractor work. Even his ladder is borrowed, and it doesn’t even reach the top of the power poles he’s working on.
But he gets the job done anyway.
Photos and video by Rob Gourley, Ruijia Zhang, Alexis Fairbanks and Kaitlin Harlow. Graphics by Avery Williams. With contributions from University of Puerto Rico students Cristina Seda and Nahmyr Zayas.