Six months after Maria, thousands of Puerto Ricans are still in the dark. Residents have started taking the fallen electrical grid into their own hands to bring the island back into the light.


“We practically had to bring them by force — after that they never came back”

Maritza Ramirez Cruz

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, she 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 it’s not just them. They aren’t the only ones who feel like they need to step in. Desperation across Puerto Rico has forced 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, the power company has marked as complete, and still many lack power.

González Claudio and Villalonga’s Vega Baja home is relying on a gas generator because it still doesn’t have power. To get to their home in the Almirante Sur neighborhood, they have to drive miles down a winding, dirt road hidden by the remains of a dense forest, making it hard for crews to get to them.

“When you come in through this road, there’s no light. All the poles are fallen, all the wiring, nothing has been picked up or worked on yet,” she said.

Homes like theirs have fallen through the cracks, since everyone around them has already had electricity restored.

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 lack of resources. He doesn’t own a car, driving his daughter's green Jeep Grand Cherokee and strapping 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.

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 from 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,” he said.

Puerto Rico’s power grid continues to be discussed as a main reason for the islands 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.”


“The electrical devastation was incredible, my God. One hundred percent of the electrical system collapsed.”

Tito Kayak, a Puerto Rican electrician and environmental activist

And even with power now restored for much of the island, there have been set backs. 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 lasted over eight hours in the middle of 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. PREPA’s and other officials estimate that power may not be fully restored from Maria’s initial hit until May.

when the power goes out

Life without power based on the experiences of Mirna, 59, of the Naranjito Municipality,
who endured without power for over six months before the lights came on.

September 20, 2017
Hurricane Maria makes landfall in Puerto Rico,
causing widespread power outages.

Day 1

You begin to assess the damage done to your property. You still have your car. You still have your roof. You know your neighbors around you might not have been so lucky.

Week 1

You're told it may take a while for your power to come back on, which is expected. You just went through this with Hurricane Irma, so nothing new here. You begin using battery-powered lanterns to get around your house at night. During the day, you are expected to be at work where you are assisting those in the community who cannot help themselves. You have canned food saved up for your meals. You luckily have your car, which means you sit in it while it charges your phone so you can receive updates from friends and family.

Month 2

Living without power has become more of a struggle. Every time you venture out to the store for batteries or a simple fan, you come home empty-handed since they are sold out. You have your family in mainland U.S. send you some supplies. You invest in a gas grill to heat your food, which sets you back financially since you now have to buy a propane tank. You've gotten better at cooking because every time you cook too much, it must be given to the dog or thrown out.

Month 4

You're still holding out on buying that expensive generator with the hopes that the power will be restored to your neighborhood any day now, just like the government has told you. You continue to carry lanterns around during the mornings and nights. You do, however, sleep a lot because once it's dark, there is little else to do.

Month 6

You finally cave and buy a generator, costing over $1,000 plus the gas it uses. You now have power for 4 - 6 hours each day to complete chores, cool your home and refrigerate your food. Soon after you buy this generator, the AEE restores power to your neighborhood. You finally buy a fridge and stock it with fresh food. The power continues to go in and out, causing you to resort to more non-perishable foods and lanterns from time to time, but it's progress.

Why is it taking so long?

The strength of Hurricane Maria is one of several factors that has led to such a long recovery. Pre-existing problems paired with Hurricane Irma hitting Puerto Rico just days before Maria have exacerbated recovery efforts. While the citizens on the island try to return to normal, there are lingering problems holding them back and slowing the process. Many worry repairs will not be completed until the 2018 hurricane season begins, starting the process all over again. Hover over or click the icons below to learn more.

broken equipment

Power equipment was damaged even before the storm hit and old power plants make repairs difficult.

challenging terrain

Rough roads and rocky regions make restoring power to rural areas more difficult.

private contractors

The Puerto Rican government hired private contractors to accelerate the repair process, many without any bidding, driving the price up.

PREPA's debt

PREPA’s pre-existing debt makes repairs difficult to fund and made it difficult to prepare communities for the storm.

Source: Vox, "Puerto Rico’s blackout, the largest in American history, explained" by Umair Irfan

In October, The American Public Power Association reported the island’s need for 50,000 new utility poles and 6,500 miles of cables.

PREPA's increasing debt due to years of fiscal and ethical problems 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-- not to mention accounting for the amount of time needed to restore power to everyone's homes.

“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.

Puerto Ricans fear the restoration will not be completed before hurricane season starts again in June. 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, that he could do it 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.

Swipe for more photos

Privatizing power

Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt crisis, which predated the storm, is another drag on rebuilding the power system. The island faces an unemployment rate in the double-digit and a declining population due to mass migration to the mainland. Forty percent of its population live below the poverty line.

PREPA, that filed for bankruptcy in July 2017 is responsible for $9 billion of that debt.

Because it is government-run and the only energy company on the island, PREPA has held the island in a monopoly 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 and, through many negotiations, unpopular bill increases were instituted to help pay the company’s debt while making no efforts to move toward its long-awaited shift toward renewable energy.

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 helps 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 islands customers would be the “largest restructuring of a public entity in U.S. history.”

Ricardo Santos Ramos, former president of Puerto Rico’s electrical workers union the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union, known as UTIER, said 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.

“There is not a single country in the world where privatizing electricity and 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.


“Privatizing electrical power plants is to forever bury the possibility for us to make an orderly transition into renewable energy."

Ricardo Santos Ramos, former president of Puerto Rico’s Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER)

Ramos wants PREPA to move towards solar energy, asking that when the time comes to install solar panels that, instead of using the islands rich agricultural land, energy suppliers should take advantage of roof space and make Puerto Ricans energy producers instead of holding power in private hands.

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 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 United States. 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,” 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 to hang banners that said “Peace Vieques” during the New York marathon.

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.