SAN JUAN — The trucks rolled onto Calle Diamante with New York plates and American and Puerto Rican flags flying out the back. Utility workers in hard hats and reflective vests were at work around 8 a.m. on Sunday, swarming the sidewalks, being lifted by buckets. They were joined by residents of this neighborhood on the border between San Juan and Carolina, because this was the day the residents would get electricity.
The power went out in this part of Puerto Rico when Hurricane Irma’s powerful Category 5 eye passed just north of the island in early September. Then Hurricane Maria landed about two weeks later, carving a path of destruction and setting back the recovery. For Flavio Rivera, 77, that’s meant more than four months of going to the bathroom with a flashlight at night. With no generator, and therefore no ability to cook or run a refrigerator, Ruth Asencio, 47, and her family have gotten used to eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at Burger King or KFC.
But for a couple hundred households, that was all going to change on Sunday.
Men at work
More than 450 Empire State utility workers have been detailed to aid Puerto Rico’s beleaguered power infrastructure, tasked specifically with restoring power to San Juan. Working street by street, seven days a week — 12, 14 and even 16 hours a day — they’ve been slowly turning on lights.
Still, San Juan and the surrounding area isn’t expected to be electrified in full until early spring. For the rest of the island, it will take even longer.
The workers — native Brooklynites, upstate New Yorkers, Long Islanders, many of them working for a Hauppauge company, Hawkeye — shook their heads at the thought of back home being powerless that long. In New York, “they call if it’s out ten minutes,” one joked.
But it was a festive atmosphere on Calle Diamante, people out on their porches in this neighborhood of one-story houses against a densely green hill. Music played. A woman took a picture with three safety-vested workers.
Suddenly the call went out: “Main line is hot!” Just a few more pieces to connect, and the juice of modern life would return.
It happened for a few houses. Dogs barked. House alarms went off. A fan turned.
But down the road, all was not well. A worker muttered to himself. One of the first house’s “weatherheads,” the piece connecting the house to the electrical line, had started smoking. Homes on that side still didn’t have juice. The power had to be shut down to make more repairs. Just another obstacle in returning power to 3.4 million people who have depended on an aging system for too long.
Despite the setback, no one despaired. What’s a few minutes after months? “They’re working well,” said Edgardo Cuadrado Santana, 54.
Then, Santana and his neighbors set up a table outside his house, just next to a lifesize Roberto Clemente picture. And soon there appeared plates of rice, chicken, avocados, bottles of 7 Up. “Eat, eat,” the residents said, granting the workers an unscheduled break.
The workers acknowledged that you don’t see this in New York. Maybe, you get coffee. But this is what it has come to for the Puerto Ricans living in hard-to-imagine conditions for nearly half a year. They are angry — at the local power authority, at FEMA, at the federal government and at Puerto Rico’s— but not at the professionals who are working to restore normality. There was always a closeness between Puerto Rico and New York, born of decades of migration. Now, with the New York power people working since days after the storm, nothing but thanks.
A hard job, but worth it
New York is “the land of plenty,” says one Hawkeye mechanic, who gave his name as Dennis. In Puerto Rico, there are shortages even of electrical tape, he said.
But the residents were patient. They broke out a little rum and tried to push it on the utility workers, who refused.
Dragging picnic chairs in view of the pole where workers installed a new transformer, the residents tried to chat in English.
Did Dennis go to the big fiesta in San Juan on Saturday?
“Yeah,” he said, looking at the ground.
Did he like it?
“What I remember of it.”
Did he drink?
Ice cubes were brought outside, for glasses. The New Yorkers stayed in the heat.
And then, it was upon them. “Uno momento,” Dennis tried. Everyone watched. A fuse clicked into place.
María Del Mar, 19, was one of the first to check. She ran inside to the empty fridge, opened its door. The light was on. She screamed. She danced to the door and flipped the light switch before going outside. It worked.
“That’s what it’s all about,” said Dennis, heading back to his truck. For Del Mar, it was still sinking in. From time to time she screamed again.
What would she do now that electricity was back? “Wash clothes,” she said in Spanish. “And look at the lights.”