Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. On Sunday, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico. Some parts of the country were hit with 30 inches of rain, triggering massive flooding and cutting off electricity for much of the island. With us now is Carlos Berrios Polanco, a freelance journalist in Caguas, Puerto Rico. Carlos, thanks for joining us on The Takeaway today.
Carlos Berrios Polanco: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Carlos, what is the extent of the power outage right now?
Carlos Berrios Polanco: Well, thankfully, some people have started getting power back. There's about 286,000 clients out of 1.4 million that have gotten power back, but most of the islands still remains without power. A thing that doesn't really get talked about a lot is that since so many of our public water services run on electricity, about 700,000 people also don't have water.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, is that an indication the situation has improved or is improving?
Carlos Berrios Polanco: It is very, very slowly improving, but some places, especially places outside of the Metro, are going to be without power for at least until the end of this week I think.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, the governor was saying that the damage to infrastructure is catastrophic, but just how fragile was infrastructure prior to the storm, especially given that we're today on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria?
Carlos Berrios Polanco: Electricity infrastructure was incredibly fragile. We've been having massive blackouts since the company, Luma Energy, privatized distribution and maintenance of our electrical grid last year. At the beginning of August, we had about four blackouts where 200,000 people were left without power for days, and in April, we had another total blackout as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me a little more about the connection between those blackouts and this privatization that you've named here.
Carlos Berrios Polanco: Luma Energy is a consortium of ATCO and Quanta Services that won a contract way back when to privatize the energy grid of Puerto Rico to prioritize distribution of the energy grid. They took over summer of last year. Since then, Puerto Ricans have experienced verifiably worse blackouts. Since they took over, we've had on average about one pretty big blackout every month, and even in between that, we've had a lot of brownouts, for some people, it's every week. There has been points where during the bigger blackouts, the light comes in and out for people multiple times a day.
We already had a very fragile electrical infrastructure, and the hurricane now has only made it significantly worse.
Melissa Harris-Perry: During these blackouts that you've been experiencing over the course of the past year and a half, two years, and the brownouts, has water service also been affected then?
Carlos Berrios Polanco: Occasionally but not as bad. They prioritize giving electricity back to water infrastructure, but now that we're in this situation where so many people are without power, they're still prioritizing it, but it's become significantly harder to return water as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me a little bit, Carlos, about people that you've been talking with there on the ground.
Carlos Berrios Polanco: Well, I've mostly been reporting in and around Caguas where thankfully the devastation was not too bad in the city center, but in the afternoon last night, I just came down from the mountains where I was talking to a family where there was a massive mudslide that's pretty much cut them off from the rest of the community. They were able to get out of their house on foot but their cars are completely stuck. One of their cars was hit by the mudslide, now it's 100 feet down the mountain more or less. Then, in that area, there's also about 9 or 10 other families where the road that leads into the community just went out completely.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Presumably, when people are having these kinds of experiences, if service is being provided by a government entity, presumably part of how democracy would work is that person could then be voted out in the next election, and presumably in how a marketplace works, if there's two different products being offered, then you go buy the one that works and not the one that doesn't. Seems to me, I mean, you're telling us about these experiences, but also that Luma Energy is a private company that can't be voted out, but also that doesn't have any competition.
How can people who are having these experiences hold accountable Luma Energy, and is that the right entity to be holding accountable?
Carlos Berrios Polanco: It's very difficult. This year if the contract passes again, we're going to have the company for 15 more years after this, but there's no way, like you said, to vote them out. The most they could do is vote out politicians or vote in politicians that they agree with that might do something about the situation. We've seen a lot of that since the 2020 election there's been a groundswell politically on either sides of the political spectrum for different political parties here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of elected officials and their responses and acknowledging and recognizing that, of course, the people of Puerto Rico have differing views on this, but what is the overall perspective about how the US government is currently responding versus how it responded under the Trump administration during Hurricane Maria?
Carlos Berrios Polanco: Well, I've talked to some people that are glad that there was an emergency declaration before Hurricane Fiona hit, but a lot of them say they haven't seen any US aid so far, and we're still very much in the early days of this thing, but it's been two days, and most of the people I've talked to have not seen anyone from FEMA. Some have seen people from Puerto Rican emergency services, but people haven't really seen American aid so far, at least the ones I've talked to in Caguas and [unintelligible 00:06:18].
Melissa Harris-Perry: Who is providing aid, who's on the ground there?
Carlos Berrios Polanco: Mostly Puerto Rican emergency services, the national guard was activated, and a lot of members of the community have banded together to help as much as they can. A lot of these places are remote where emergency services won't reach on time, and even places where they weren't as hard hit, community members have banded together to form these pockets of resilience to help each other.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Obviously, it's still very early, just a few days in, but I'm wondering if folks are starting to talk about the effects on the school year and on local economies, presuming that this electricity and water problem is going to continue for at least some period of time.
Carlos Berrios Polanco: Well, we're used to blackouts like this at this point, but classes have been canceled up until Wednesday, I believe. Effects on the local economy so far I don't really think anyone has talked about it because most politicians and government entities have been in a rescue mode, like, let's try to fix these problems as best as they can.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Carlos Berrios Polanco is a freelance journalist coming to us from Puerto Rico. Carlos, thank you for your time today.
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