After Months Without Power, A Puerto Rico Town Strings Its Own Lines The Pepino Power Authority of Puerto Rico is a volunteer band of citizens restoring power on their own. The island's electric utility says their work is illegal. Residents don't care.
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After Months Without Power, A Puerto Rico Town Strings Its Own Lines

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After Months Without Power, A Puerto Rico Town Strings Its Own Lines

After Months Without Power, A Puerto Rico Town Strings Its Own Lines

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It has been four months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. And still, 40 percent of the island's customers are still without power. But as NPR's Adrian Florido reports, some people in one town got so tired of waiting they decided to do it themselves.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Rosa Cruz and her husband, Luis Felipe Colon, both retired, haven't had electricity for four months. So they've eaten mostly canned food, and prayed that Rosa doesn't have an asthma attack because they can't plug in a nebulizer. Their little house in a rural part of western Puerto Rico sits on a hillside. From their porch, they look down on the town of San Sebastian.

LUIS FELIPE COLON: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "When there was no electricity," Colon says, "it looked really beautiful at sunset." But he adds that as power has slowly been restored to the town below, it's looked even more beautiful.

ROSA CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

COLON: (Speaking Spanish)

FLORIDO: "I tell him, look, there's light down there," his wife says. "It's getting closer to us." This morning, they woke up and saw that a crew had rehoisted the downed utility pole in front of their house. Colon says he literally jumped.

COLON: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "What joy," he said. "It's our turn." The men working out front were not with the utility company or the Army Corps of Engineers or any of the official government crews working to restore the island's power. They were San Sebastian's police chief and a retired employee of the utility company and a bunch of other men from this municipality, all volunteering to restore power to their own town. San Sebastian's city hall is on a picture-perfect plaza with a fountain and a church. In his office there, Mayor Javier Jimenez says that back in November after nearly two months of waiting for the power authority to start grid repairs in his town, he couldn't take it anymore.

JAVIER JIMENEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "The first thing I did," he says, "was find out which of our employees were electricians." Jimenez said he then put out a call for help from linemen and other people who used to work with the power authority but were now retired.

JIMENEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "And so we started these brigades," he said. They even gave themselves a name, the Pepino - or cucumber - Power Authority - the PPA - after the town's full name, San Sebastian Las Vegas del Pepino. They designed a logo, slapped it on their helmets and utility trucks. The Pepino Power Authority started fixing electric lines in the center of town and has been working its way out to the hills. They have met resistance. The island's electric utility accuse Jimenez of circumventing its authority. He admits he did. But the mayor objects to another accusation, that what he's doing is unsafe.

JIMENEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "One of the first things we did," Jimenez says, "was establish a safety protocol. And we even brought in a government inspector." Across Puerto Rico, mayors still waiting for repair crews to arrive in their municipalities have started pressuring the governor to allow them to legally restore their own power. So this week, the legislature announced a bill that could allow cities to hire their own contractors.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: In San Sebastian, the Pepino Power Authority has already restored service to about 2,500 homes. Joaquin Cruz, a volunteer, says the goal is to restore 100 percent of San Sebastian's homes before the end of January.

JOAQUIN CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Yesterday, we did between 60 and 80," he says. "And today will be the same." One of those is the little hillside home of Rosa Cruz and Luis Felipe Colon, who've been watching the progress from their porch all day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Every time the workmen of the Pepino Power Authority are ready to turn the power back on to a new home, they get giddy with excitement. Felix Aviles, the police chief turned electrician, races up to the house, switches on the breaker and then flips the switch for the porch light. It turns on.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Thank you," Rosa Cruz tells the workers. "We are so blessed." Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Sebastian, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "STUMBLE ON AIR")

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