ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Hurricane Maria wiped out Puerto Rico's electrical grid in September. And as we've been reporting, getting the lights back on has been a slow and uneven process. On the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, residents face the prospect of six more months without reliable electricity. NPR's Merrit Kennedy recently traveled there to see how people are getting by.
MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: La Nasa is the place to be on a Sunday night in Vieques. Couples sway on the dance floor. A bartender pulls beers out of a cooler. The bar is now a rickety patio next to a giant pile of debris. This place was reduced to rubble by the hurricane and washed into the sea.
JOSE SILVA: Was a mess. (Laughter) It was a big mess.
KENNEDY: That's Jose Silva, the owner, standing on the sand. He says that after the hurricane, he scavenged wood to reconstruct the small bar and reopened within a week.
SILVA: You know, people, they were so stressed out. You know, they were so sad. They just want to come and cry. I was trying to make people feel like, you know, you can do it.
KENNEDY: The storm cut Vieques off from Puerto Rico's main grid. A generator-powered speaker blasts a new holiday song with a gift request. It goes, I'm asking the three kings to bring a new generator that works.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KENNEDY: That message resonates here.
CARLOS PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KENNEDY: Carlos Perez is the operator of the island's troubled main generator. On this morning, red lights flash on the control board. It took months to get it up and running at all. Now, it's still riddled with problems.
PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KENNEDY: Perez works for Puerto Rico's electric utility. He says the generator is meant to be a backup when the connection to the main grid is down.
PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KENNEDY: Perez provides a litany of causes for this generator's problems, like difficulty obtaining spare parts and fuel and downed power lines. Haronid Cruz Felix, the animated spokesman for the mayor, says there's a more basic truth here.
HARONID CRUZ FELIX: (Through interpreter) You can ask any resident of Vieques, and they will tell you that that generator doesn't work, that it's a piece of junk.
KENNEDY: "The electricity company, the Puerto Rican government and the federal government all share responsibility for the plight of Vieques," he says.
CRUZ FELIX: (Speaking Spanish).
KENNEDY: Vieques was used for decades as a training ground for the U.S. military, including bombing exercises, a fact that Felix believes obligates the federal government to provide more effective assistance. The island didn't have regular running water for nearly a month, he says, until generators were secured specifically to operate the pump. And cell service is also sparse. That makes it nearly impossible to run a business, says Gladys Aleman, the co-owner of an ecotourism company here.
GLADYS ALEMAN: I think it's just ludicrous that, in this day and age, we don't have communications, and we still don't have electricity.
KENNEDY: The vulnerability of Vieques is starkest at the island's hospital. The main building of the hospital was damaged by the storm and now home to a dangerous amount of mold.
JOSE CARRASQUILLO: That - that's for a monitor, to some monitors, and...
KENNEDY: There's a makeshift clinic in the hospital's parking lot. Dr. Jose Carrasquillo is giving us a tour of its military-style tents.
CARRASQUILLO: I consider this camping. (Laughter)
KENNEDY: Carrasquillo makes do with what he has. To demonstrate how he sutures in the dimly lit tents, he pulls out a small flashlight and holds it between his teeth.
CARRASQUILLO: I have to bring a flashlight and hold it with my mouth, (laughter) improvise, because a patient needs it.
KENNEDY: The doctor operates without equipment that would be standard in most hospitals. And transporting patients with more serious injuries isn't always possible.
CARRASQUILLO: If the weather is bad, no one gets out of here. That means I'm going to have to treat anything that comes here. That's a challenge.
KENNEDY: The precariousness of the facility scares him. The doctor fears the tents won't last long against the elements. And it's only six months until hurricane season starts again. Merrit Kennedy, NPR News, Vieques, Puerto Rico.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAM DA SILVA'S "BEM TRANQUILO")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.