MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's been four years since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico's electric power grid. Yet even after billions of dollars were allocated by the federal government to repair it, the island's energy infrastructure is still in terrible shape. Blackouts continued this summer as the two entities responsible for operating the grid pointed fingers at each other over who is to blame. One of those two entities is Luma, a private company that was awarded a contract last year to distribute electricity around the island. The other is the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, which used to be in charge of the whole system and now continues to operate the power plants.
We wanted to hear more about this, so we called reporter Elivan Martinez Mercado. He has been covering all this for the Center for Investigative Journalism in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and, like most on the island, he's been living with unreliable electricity since Hurricane Maria struck.
ELIVAN MARTINEZ MERCADO: I spent one year without power in my house, in the mountains, so I know lots of people that's waited about a year before seeing electricity again.
MARTIN: So when we talked earlier this week, I asked Elivan Martinez Mercado to explain how things got so bad.
MARTINEZ MERCADO: Puerto Rico electric system has been in very bad shape because of lack of investment in the power plants and in the transmission and distribution line. And this is a very important subject because this is a matter of life and death. During the past 30 years, the energy system infrastructure, it's became outdated. So when Hurricane Maria came, it was very easy to destroy the grid. And let's remember that about 3,000 people died after Hurricane Maria because those were electricity-dependent people. More than 80% of the transmission and distribution system was destroyed.
MARTIN: So you're saying that the problems predated Hurricane Maria. But what was - Maria was what? Sort of like a kind of the death blow, if I could put it that way?
MARTINEZ MERCADO: That's the right way to describe it. It was a death blow. Also, PREPA was bankrupt in the same year that Hurricane Maria came to the island. So there were different factors that affected the energy system.
MARTIN: So what was the reasoning behind privatizing part of the energy sector and awarding this contract to Luma? What was the thinking there?
MARTINEZ MERCADO: There were several preconceived ideas of privatization and a reconstruction process. One of the preconceived idea was we will have private money to invest in the system. Another idea was the system was going to be more reliable. We were finally going to take political influence out of the equation, lower costs, and local companies were going to be hired and will benefit from the reconstruction funds. All those preconceived ideas have to unfold so far. I'm going to give you an example. We're speaking about a public-private partnership. Usually, when you do this kind of business, you expect that the company brings money to the table. Do you know how many dollars Luma brought to the table? Zero.
MARTIN: Can I just jump in here? According to your reporting, the blackouts on the island actually worsened in the months since Luma's work began. Is that true? Why is that?
MARTINEZ MERCADO: Partially. But we know that PREPA, being the one in charge of the power plants, has been responsible for most of the blackouts. But during our reports, we found out something very important. Luma's first reliability report confirmed that the company lasted - needed more time to restore electricity during the first three months of operation when compared to PREPA. And for example, during June, July and August, it took 333 minutes to Luma to repair the service. If you compare it with PREPA the year before, it was only 155 minutes. Those numbers are both bad because the average in the U.S. is only 82 minutes. So people wait a long time before getting their service restored, and during Luma, it doubled.
MARTIN: So you've recently published a story about various political players in Puerto Rico being involved in lobbying for Luma. As briefly as you can, recognizing that everybody is not going to know these names, could you just tell us what you've found and why it's significant?
MARTINEZ MERCADO: We found one of the preconceived ideas also of the privatization was taking politics out of the equation, and we just proved that one former governor of the PPD party, he was doing some kind of lobbying activities for Luma. Also, different people who worked in top-level positions during the administration - past administrations of both parties are being hired by Luma in top positions.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, what does your reporting suggest and what do the people you talked to suggest? You know, what would it take to restore Puerto Rico's power grid and create a working energy system?
MARTINEZ MERCADO: I think the restoration process needs to be faster. The restoration process is very bureaucratic because you have Luma going through FEMA's process, going through the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau's process. And you also have Luma going through federal process and going through Puerto Rican process. And you know what? There's not a single work already done with reconstruction funds. They're still planning and designing. So this will take a lot of years before we see something better.
MARTIN: That was investigative journalist Elivan Martinez Mercado speaking to us from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Elivan Martinez Mercado, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.
MARTINEZ MERCADO: Thank you for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MNDSGN AND SOFIE'S "ABEJA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. 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.