Several weeks before he would become a folk hero across Puerto Rico, Jorge Bracero slipped in a puddle at San Juan’s central power plant and broke his leg.
After a few days in a cast, he began to feel pain so intense he was unable to sleep or eat. When doctors realized he had developed blood clots in his injured limb, they prescribed a six-month regimen of blood thinners and barred him from returning to work for the duration.
It was July 2017. So when the first big storms of that hurricane season began bearing down on Puerto Rico, Bracero—a power plant operator with the island’s public electric power authority, known as Prepa—sat on the sidelines, miserable and frustrated, reliant on a pair of crutches.
Bracero is 38 years old and stoutly built, with buzzed hair and a dark beard. He has a sharp, pointed nose and prominent eyebrows that sometimes knit up into twin, back-to-back apostrophes at the middle of his forehead—especially when he is concerned. And he was often concerned that fall.
When Hurricane Irma hit the island on September 5, Bracero and his wife, Charlot, were among the 1.1 million Puerto Rican customers who lost power. They rode out the storm and its aftermath with relatives who had a generator; Charlot was seven months pregnant with their first child. Bracero slept on a couch, passing his days laid up in the humid late-summer heat, anxious that his wife might go into early labor, and fuming that he couldn’t do his part to get the power back on. “I felt useless,” Bracero says.
The job that Bracero was desperate to get back to can be brutal on a good day. On any given shift, he and one or two partners are responsible for operating two 15-story-high boilers, along with the 20 burners that heat them to produce steam and the six massive power-generating turbines that turn under the steam’s pressure. Bracero’s role is to tend to the machinery itself, while his partner sits at a console monitoring the plant’s water, oil, temperature, and pressure levels, constantly relaying information to Bracero. The heat is intense, the work exhausting. When he comes home, his clothes go straight to the balcony because they smell so powerfully of sweat and diesel.
Since he was unable to pitch in at the plant, Bracero settled instead for defending his colleagues on Facebook, where predictable rounds of invective were being heaped on Prepa for its failure to restore power. Normally, Bracero’s Facebook persona tended toward cheeky political memes, Game of Thrones jokes, and Star Wars references. But now he took to posting photos of Prepa workers doing dangerous things to get the lights back on. One grainy cell phone image showed a lineman balancing on a helicopter skid in midair, stretching his arms out into space to repair wires at the tip of a utility pole. “And then they yell, GET MOVING,” Bracero wrote. After Irma raked across Florida, he shared a video that someone had taken from high above a field near Jacksonville; the camera slowly panned across a sea of white bucket trucks that had assembled from all across the United States. “That’s why Florida has light and we don’t. That’s 16,000” workers, he wrote. “Here we are alone.”
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico just two weeks after Irma. “I have a very apocalyptic mind,” Bracero says, but the storm’s ferocity was nonetheless beyond what he could imagine. It brought sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and a 9-foot storm surge, cutting a roughly diagonal line across the island from the southeast over a span of nearly eight hours; its trajectory felt almost deliberate, as if plotted out to inflict the most damage. Bracero compared it to a terrorist attack. Eighty percent of Puerto Rico’s electrical transmission lines went down. The entire island lost power.
Bracero couldn’t stand being idle anymore. After the storm, several employees of the San Juan power plant were unaccounted for. No one knew when, or if, they would return to work. Without hands on deck, Prepa was never going to get the lights back on. So Bracero pressured his doctor to sign a medical release. Of course, if you’re taking a blood thinner, a cut can be catastrophic, so the doctor agreed on the condition that Bracero wear an extra pair of gloves, an extra long-sleeve shirt, and a pair of spandex pants underneath his work clothes. When he looked in the mirror wearing this new uniform, Bracero laughed. In the boiling heart of a power plant the temperatures routinely soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but he was dressed as if he was going skiing.
Once he was back at Prepa, Bracero quickly came to understand the magnitude of the damage. But his head was also still stuck in social media, which—like all media after the storm—was maddening to him. News coverage appeared to be designed to spread panic. “My wife and family were watching me yell at the television,” he says. Nor was Prepa doing a particularly effective job of communicating. So Bracero made another drastic move: “I decided to become a news outlet myself.”
He started using his Facebook page to post daily updates on the effort to repair the grid. Favoring extreme transparency, he posted raw screenshots of the spreadsheets listing the work assignments of every power and light brigade on the island, alongside frank attempts to explain how the grid works and what it would take to get each part of it up and running. One day, when a steam turbine at a major power plant failed, he dug up an animated video about how steam turbines work. He warned that the clip was “ASTRONOMICALLY BORING” but pointed people to the five-minute mark if they wanted to get a visual sense of the component that was broken.
Toward the end of each post, Bracero would switch gears and offer a kind of running pep talk; he developed a voice that was simultaneously gentle, urgent, and reassuring, completely free of cynicism or panic. In practically every update, he implored his readers to post videos as soon as their lights came back on. “Tomorrow help others cook, help those who have no light to feel a gift of normalcy,” he wrote to people who were about to regain power. “Help wash clothes, help cook. Make Ice!” He’d vary the message slightly, so it didn’t seem like boilerplate. “In the dark we have met again as neighbors. Don’t forget,” he wrote. “Don’t go back to your bubble.” To people whose pleas for help flooded his comments, he said: “The moment will come. You are not forgotten.” When people did post images of their lights finally on, and photos of their freezers full of all the ice they had made for their neighbors, his response was unfailingly earnest. “I’m proud of you!” he wrote, again and again.
By publicly sharing inside information from Prepa, Bracero knew he was taking a risk—he was afraid he might lose his job—but he did it anyway. “If I get fired, it’s for doing what’s right,” he thought. By November, he had to switch over from his personal Facebook page to posting as a public figure on a fan page, because he was overwhelmed by posts, tags, and messages. Within a day, his new page had more than 12,000 followers. Someone made a portrait of Bracero in the style of Shepard Fairey’s famous image of Barack Obama—an ersatz block print of Bracero with his long beard and hard hat, an enormous smile on his face—and this became his public profile picture. People sometimes stopped him in the street to thank him, to give him a hug.
In private, however, Bracero was frightened. Now that he was in contact with thousands of Puerto Ricans, he could feel how fragile they were—how fragile the whole island was—after the storm. “I wasn’t expecting this level of desperation,” he told me. “It scares the shit out of me.”
All across Puerto Rico over the past year, people like Bracero have taken matters into their own hands in ways that are both inspiring and distressing.
When it became clear to Javier Jiménez, the mayor of a northwestern town called San Sebastián, that power wasn’t going to be restored right away after Maria, he decided to go rogue. He gathered a handful of brave (some might say reckless) city workers, along with a few retired Prepa employees willing to volunteer, and mobilized them to reconnect the 40,000-person town to the grid themselves. It was inordinately dangerous, but Jiménez felt that the greater risk was inaction. San Sebastián is about two hours from the capital, San Juan, and for many residents, particularly the elderly and the infirm, having electricity was a matter of life and death. “It was a state of emergency,” the mayor told me. “Nobody could’ve stood in my way. Not Prepa. Not the governor. Not the president of the United States.”
Jiménez called his band of vigilante line workers the PPA—the Pepino Power Authority—after the surrounding Pepino mountains. The PPA asked men and women in San Sebastián to come out with their own machetes to prune back the brush and tree limbs, helping clear a path to fallen poles near their homes. Then the PPA’s core team of volunteers would step in, repairing poles, scavenging parts, and running new cable. Officially, Prepa was not pleased to have a local amateur utility reconnecting high-voltage power lines. Unofficially, Prepa employees were slipping spare parts to the renegade municipal power crew, one volunteer told me, to help speed up the reelectrification.
In another town, Adjuntas, nestled in the mountains about an hour and a half southwest of San Juan, an NGO dedicated in part to solar power, called Casa Pueblo, became a pillar of the local recovery. When the town’s 18,000 residents were cut off from the rest of the island after Maria, the NGO’s solar-powered radio helped authorities find out which roads were clear and which families were in danger, and attend to emergencies when the central government and federal authorities were not yet responding. Casa Pueblo subsequently gave out some 14,000 solar-powered lamps and also offered a solar-charged satellite phone at its offices for locals to use. At any given time, five to 10 people waited to make a call.
Arturo Massol, the associate director of Casa Pueblo and an ardent evangelist for decentralized, renewable energy, described what was happening on the island as “an energy insurrection.” Ordinary Puerto Ricans, he said, had woken up to the fact that when it came to electricity, they would have to look for alternatives.
“Tomorrow help others cook, help those who have no light to feel a gift of normalcy,” Bracero wrote to people who had regained power. “Help wash clothes, help cook. Make Ice!”
On the mainland, green-tech commentators pointed to Maria as an opportunity to turn the island into a laboratory for experimenting with microgrids, renewables, and climate-resilient infrastructure. Two weeks after the storm, a Twitter user in Virginia named Scott Stapf issued a hypothetical challenge: “Could @elonmusk go in and rebuild Puerto Rico’s electricity system with independent solar & battery systems?” Musk replied with characteristic bravado: “The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too.” Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, tweeted back: “Let’s talk.”
But as they waited for the lights to come on, the vast majority of Puerto Ricans found alternatives to the grid in the most obvious, least sustainable places. Diesel and gas generators became the island’s constant, deafening background noise. Long orange extension cords slithered out of windows, connecting houses to one another, as neighbors shared the power their generators were producing. (One of Bracero’s constant refrains on Facebook was a set of pleading instructions on how to power multiple houses using one generator without hurting anyone.) During its busiest period after the storm, one store in San Juan was selling about 400 generators a day.
In the town of Río Grande, less than an hour east of San Juan, the Puerto Rican journalist Ana Teresa Toro told me the hurricane had forced her to rethink the viability of the island itself. “You can’t trust the infrastructure anymore,” she said. Barely anyone she knew had stayed at their normal weight after the storm: Without consistent refrigeration, people either ate processed food and put on pounds or they suffered through shortages and depression and lost weight. Toro told me some of her friends joked darkly about the thrilling results of this diet.
Heroic improvisation and gallows humor can only get a population of 3.3 million people so far. Electricity is, of course, the utility upon which modernity rests. Without it, there can be nothing approaching normalcy. And the crippling cost of keeping generators fueled just underlined how essential grid power was. Solar power, meanwhile, was uneven without powerful battery backups—and while the number of such batteries on the island was growing, thanks to companies like Tesla, there were still hardly enough to make a dent in demand (see “Balloons, Batteries, and the Crypto Invasion”). Yes, Prepa was a basket case—dysfunctional, archaic, overwhelmingly reliant on imported oil—but it was still palpably and undeniably Puerto Rico’s most critical infrastructure. However little people trusted it, there were very few ways around relying on it.
As the post-Maria period moved past its feverish first few weeks, electrical power inevitably became the simplest way of measuring progress toward recovery. And Bracero became one of the most trusted voices on technical questions that had come to feel like existential ones. How many people are connected now? What percentage of the population? When is the 50900 transmission line going to be operative again? The bigger question was not so much whether the crisis would lead to a new model for climate resilience, but whether the existing system would even be up and running by the next hurricane season. Doing so would require repairing far more than the damage caused by a single storm in September 2017.
When Jorge Bracero began working for Prepa back in 2005, it was an institution that commanded some respect. By some measures, Prepa was (and still is) the largest public electric utility in the US, serving more customers than the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power or the Long Island Power Authority. Its grid, splayed across the rugged landscape of Puerto Rico, had been instrumental in the island’s economic development. Its finances were sound. “I chose to be a blue-collar worker,” Bracero recalls.
But as it happened, 2005 was also around the time when Puerto Rico’s entire economy began a long, as yet unchecked slide, taking Prepa with it. The causes of the collapse were no mystery. For decades, federal tax law had offered US corporations major exemptions if they set up shop in Puerto Rico. Waves of this tax-incentivized industrialization had brought petrochemical plants, and then pharmaceutical and tech companies, to the island. But by 2006 the last of those tax breaks were phased out, and an exodus of Puerto Rico’s industrial employers began in earnest. The island’s GDP per capita fell in tandem. Unemployment spiked. Between 2000 and 2015, as economic stagnation took hold, nearly 10 percent of the population, mostly working-age Puerto Ricans, left for the mainland.
The island’s tax base became a hopelessly moving target. From 2002 to 2014, the Puerto Rican government overestimated its revenue eight times, on one occasion by as much as 19 percent. Deficits grew year after year. To cover costs, Puerto Rico began to borrow heavily, issuing bonds to close budgetary gaps in ways that might be charitably described as creative. And they were easy to sell, in part because of another quirk in the US tax code: Earnings on Puerto Rican bonds were triply exempt from state, federal, and the island’s own territorial taxes. Investment banks, retirement funds, and individual investors from the island and the mainland bought billions of dollars’ worth, helping to prop up what amounted to a fiscal Ponzi scheme. By 2015 the situation was untenable, and then-governor Alejandro García Padilla declared that Puerto Rico’s $72 billion in debts were not payable, setting into motion a series of negotiations with bondholders that culminated in an unelected oversight board taking control of the island’s finances.
Since then, to pay off creditors, Puerto Ricans have borne draconian cuts in education, public transportation, health, and utilities. As the most economically mobile Puerto Ricans have fled the island, these cuts have fallen on a population that is older, poorer, more isolated—and angrier—than ever. May Day protests in the past two years have turned violent.
The years of austerity and economic contraction took a particularly harsh toll on Prepa. In 2016 a report ordered by the regulatory body in charge of overseeing Prepa laid bare the utility’s sorry state with grim clarity: “Prepa’s generation, transmission, and distribution systems are falling apart,” it said. Prepa’s electrical service had cost more than other US utilities, yet its customer interruption rates were four or five times higher. As a result of “historically thin budgets,” Prepa had adopted a self-defeating policy of postponing maintenance and extending outages to avoid paying overtime to its employees. Blackouts had become more frequent, the report said, while the rate of worker injuries and fatalities in Prepa’s shrinking workforce was “alarming.”
Some of the utility’s challenges were a legacy of Puerto Rico’s industrial past. The island’s largest power plants had been built on its less populated southern coast, to serve a now mothballed set of massive petrochemical plants nearby. Now those power facilities were primarily responsible for supplying electricity to the major population centers some 50 miles away on the island’s northern coast, via transmission lines that had to cross a rugged, heavily jungled mountain range. Maintaining those lines was an extraordinary task even in the best of times.
The utility was, according to the report’s authors, stuck in a vicious cycle: The precarious state of the grid, which lurched from outage to outage, precluded the kind of massive, visionary investments needed to shore up or renovate the system. Not that Prepa’s leadership seemed much inclined toward vision. Prepa administrators were alleged to have participated in a fraudulent scheme to accept kickbacks in exchange for buying low-quality fuel oil at inflated prices. A 2016 report from a special investigative committee of the Puerto Rican Senate found that labs working for Prepa had manipulated tests of sulfur content in its fuel to cover the utility’s tracks. The scheme is alleged to have involved billions of dollars’ worth of contracts.
(A class action filed on behalf of customers is still pending.) On top of it all, the utility was more than $9 billion in debt.
Well before the apocalyptic 2017 hurricane season, one thing had been made very clear to all Puerto Ricans: It didn’t take a hurricane to knock out Prepa’s grid. On the afternoon of September 21, 2016, almost exactly a year before Maria made landfall, a single power switch overheated at the island’s largest power plant, causing a cascading blackout that snuffed out the lights for 1.5 million customers. As if to underline the system’s fragility, all of this happened under clear skies.
By December 2017, San Juan felt half-empty, permeated by the rumble of generators and the sharp smell of diesel. Puerto Ricans had been leaving for the mainland by the thousands each week. It was common to find wreckage that had yet to be cleared; at major intersections, one side of the street might be lit up and the other still dim—a bolsillo, or pocket, of darkness. The pattern of illumination followed no discernible logic.
According to best estimates, roughly half of Puerto Ricans were still living without power. A sketch comedy troupe called Teatro Breve was putting on five sold-out shows a week in San Juan, all about living without power, waiting in lines for no reason, and the myriad daily indignities that made up the post-hurricane ennui. The crowd’s laughter was deep and guttural, almost pained. In one scene, an actor berated her skeptical husband: “The lights aren’t going out today. Jorge Bracero said so!”
Outside, on the streets, there were work crews everywhere—line workers from Prepa and from Florida, New York, and Texas in bucket trucks. The Army Corps of Engineers was also on the scene, but federal rules prevented them from upgrading Prepa’s grid. They had to “replace in kind”: A wooden electrical pole felled by Maria had to be replaced by another wooden pole, even if a metal one might better withstand the next storm.
Ordinary Prepa employees I spoke to approached their work with a sense of pride and resignation. I spent an afternoon with one brigade of Prepa line workers doing repairs near the city of Bayamón. Raul Lebrón, a grizzled 21-year veteran of the utility, showed me parts he and his coworkers had scavenged from fallen transmission lines, cleaned up, and were now set to reuse. He held a brown porcelain insulator in his hand and estimated it was around 60 years old. The ingenuity of Prepa’s line workers astonished their colleagues from the mainland. Johnny Price, a Con Edison manager from New York who oversees line workers, spent six weeks in Puerto Rico that winter and told me he’d never seen work like this before. “They see a pole, they stop, strip it, use what they can. They would reach into oil-filled transformers and start rewiring on the fly. They do calculations in their head. It was pretty impressive.”
But no one could be impressed by the overall slow pace of recovery. In January, Governor Rosselló made an announcement. “The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has become a heavy burden on our people, who are now hostage to its poor service and high cost,” he said. He announced his intention to privatize Prepa and sell off its assets, and signaled that he intended to move fast.
By spring, the number of customers for whom power had been restored in Puerto Rico had climbed past 1.4 million, but it could lurch down again in an instant. On February 11, an explosion at the Monacillos power plant plunged the capital back into darkness. A few weeks later, in early March, blackouts hit San Juan once more, two days in a row. On April 12, a tree fell along one of the island’s electrical transmission lines near Salinas, knocking out power to nearly 1 million people. Six days later, a contractor hit a line with an excavator and the island went dark once more.
“As soon as the lights go out, my phone blows up,” Bracero told me in April. “People are traumatized.” He was as busy as ever at work, recovered from his injuries, and posting all the time. During the second blackout that month, one of Bracero’s updates was shared more than 4,000 times and gathered hundreds of comments. The thread included conspiracy theories about the privatization effort, speculating that the outages were part of a plan to further delegitimize the utility, paving the way for Rosselló’s deal. All day long, Bracero provided updates, trying to maintain the same tone of serenity he had been using since the hurricane.
That month, I went to see Francisco Rullán, the official appointed by Governor Rosselló to direct public energy policy and help oversee the government’s privatization plans for Prepa. His office sits in what is known as La Milla de Oro, San Juan’s Golden Mile, the city’s financial center. There isn’t much that’s golden about it anymore, the disrepair and blight that preceded the storm apparent even here in boarded-up windows and half-empty office buildings. A modest gathering of former teachers stood in front of the building, protesting cuts to their pensions and school closures, posing for pictures in front of their homemade signs, and handing out flyers to passersby.
Before assuming his current role, Rullán had worked as an engineer at Prepa for more than two decades, so he knew the utility from the inside and was keenly aware of both its assets and its shortcomings. But Prepa’s inability to fulfill its mission of providing consistent electricity to Puerto Rico was, no matter how you looked at it, a scandal. It was, after all, an inefficient state monopoly that lost money despite its captive customer base. “My entire family still has no power,” he told me, just moments after we’d sat down. He was referring to his parents, who lived in a town called Utuado, in the island’s mountainous center. “I always use them as an example. Going without power has become normal.” He encouraged me to visit them so I could see for myself.
The first step in the privatization plan, Rullán told me, was to get Puerto Rico’s legislative assembly to change the law to allow Prepa to sell its assets. The next step would be to get buyers lined up—either for the entire utility or for different elements of Prepa’s broad portfolio: its aging plants, tens of thousands of miles of power lines, irrigation systems, right-of-way easements, and fiber-optic cable, to say nothing of its contracts with thousands of employees and its considerable debt.
The new Prepa, he assured me, would offer lower prices for the consumer, more options, 50 percent renewable fuel sources by 2040, microgrids, and more. But many observers were skeptical. Rosselló’s proposed bill to privatize Prepa had explicitly blocked the utility’s regulator, the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, from overseeing the sale of private contracts. The plan instead stipulated that Prepa’s seven-member governing board would run the 18-month-long process. The credit-rating agency Moody’s called the timeline “quite aggressive.”
Cathy Kunkel, of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, worried that privatization without regulatory oversight would just open up opportunities for corrupt, politically driven business deals. Prepa’s leaders, after all, had already been accused of taking kickbacks and making bad deals for their customers, as with the fuel oil scandal. And the fact remained that Prepa was the largest single public asset in all of Puerto Rico—the biggest thing the territory had left to sell off. What terms might a buyer demand to purchase a creaking electrical system that provides power to a shrinking customer base on an island sure to be hit by more storms and hurricanes? In a report that Kunkel helped author, the IEEFA was particularly dubious that a new private owner, absent robust regulation, would voluntarily shift toward renewable fuel sources: Why would you pave the way for distributed forms of energy generation, like solar, when they compete with the centralized power grid you’ve just bought?
I asked Rullán what the model was for a wholesale transformation of a public utility like the one he was proposing. He shook his head; Puerto Rico would be the model. His tone wasn’t boastful; it was optimistic in a way that felt surprising, given the context. “What we do here will make history,” he said.
José Roman, then the interim president of the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, the sidelined regulatory body overseeing Prepa, was less optimistic. He wasn’t opposed to privatization in principle, but he had little faith in the process that had been set in motion. Privatized energy markets have to be designed carefully: Supply and demand must always be in balance, or the entire system fails. He feared that the sale would become yet another missed opportunity for the Puerto Rican consumer. “Yes,” he told me. “We will be studied. We’ll be studied for everything we did wrong.”
During my final trip to Puerto Rico in April, I decided to visit Utuado, the town where Rullán had said his family was still living without power. Along the road there, I ran into two men picking up telephone wire that had been knocked down by the storm. Michael Casiano and Carmelo Fuentes were cutting the cable they had gathered into meter-long lengths, stacking the pieces in the bed of their beat-up truck, and then bringing it to someone from the phone company, they told me. They seemed happy to have a job.
Casiano was tall and thin, wearing dark glasses. He had a broad, friendly smile. Fuentes was heavyset and strong, with thick arms and giant hands. Fuentes told me he’d almost lost his mind after Maria, and though I barely pressed him, it soon became clear he wasn’t speaking in metaphor. His family had had no water and never managed to buy a generator. Everything seemed hopeless. One of Fuentes’ neighbors, a 22-year-old woman, had hung herself. The young woman’s mother and brother had followed suit, though both survived. I asked Fuentes how he knew he was having mental troubles. “Because I was arrested,” he told me. He woke up in a straitjacket. But he was better now. He smiled bravely, as if to prove it.
Casiano wanted to agree but instead offered: “Puerto Rico can’t withstand another one of these.”
Along the way to Utuado, the roads narrow and snake. These sparsely populated towns up in the hills, where the brush is thick and the trees curve over the roads, may well be the last places where power is restored. If another massive storm comes, residents worry they’ll find themselves once more at the back of the line.
Rullán’s parents met me halfway up the hill, and we drove up together toward a small nursing home called Ciudad Dorada, Madre de Dios, which was still operating without grid power. Its director, Luz Collazo, told me she couldn’t afford to use her generator much; she was spending around $300 a week on diesel. She had invested thousands of dollars in solar panels, but the building was too large for them to power it all at once. A visitor staying in the home had died a few weeks after Maria. Two of Collazo’s 10 residents needed oxygen, more than half had Alzheimer’s, and all but one were over 80 years old. For hot showers, Collazo and her husband, Miguel, warmed water on the stove. They also gathered rainwater in a large plastic kiddie pool on the roof.
Collazo took me out to the terrace, looking over a lush valley. “No one’s come to pick up the power lines,” she said. “No one’s even come to survey the damage.” What was most maddening was that the vast majority of the utility poles along the road to the nursing home had survived. In all, Collazo’s nursing home would go without grid power for nine months.
By the spring, one piece of good news had arrived from Washington: The new congressional budget allowed for an exception to the usual rules of federal disaster funding, and now FEMA could pay for major upgrades and new designs for Prepa’s grid. But that exception was only guaranteed to apply as long as the utility stayed public. Nevertheless, on June 11, the Puerto Rican legislature approved a bill to privatize Prepa. And on June 20, three weeks after the start of the new hurricane season, Governor Rosselló signed it into law.
Exactly one month later, Prepa was in crisis once again. On July 11, the utility’s CEO of just four months, a non-Spanish speaker named Walter Higgins, announced his resignation, citing personal reasons. There had been considerable public outcry over his salary, which at $450,000 ranked among the highest of American public electric utility CEOs. The utility’s governing board, the same body that Rosselló had hoped would oversee the privatization process, then appointed one of its own members as the new CEO. The new head promptly told a San Juan radio station that the $750,000 he’d accepted to work as director of the beleaguered utility was “a sacrifice.” Amid public uproar, the governor asked the board to lower his pay; rather than comply, more than half of the board members resigned in one extraordinary day. By the following week, yet another chief executive had been appointed, the fifth since the storm. In the midst of the shake-up, the governor was on his way to Russia to watch the World Cup soccer finals. Hurricane season was under way, and after the largest blackout in the history of the US, the utility charged with keeping the lights on appeared to be all but leaderless.
For workers like Bracero, this was all demoralizing. When we last spoke, he confessed that he’d expected at some point to be named Prepa’s spokesperson, or at least moved to the communications team. But every time he broached the issue, the CEO of Prepa would resign, and Bracero would be back at square one. He still lived an odd double life: at once a public figure and a guy climbing around a power plant in a hard hat, reeking of diesel. He’d been in talks to become an island-wide radio personality, and had in fact been scheduled to go on the air that week. But he’d had to postpone his debut: The San Juan plant was as understaffed as ever, and he had been working double shifts for two weeks straight. “I’ve been doing this for 13 years,” he told me, with weariness in his voice. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep going before he burned out.
Additional reporting by Nick Stockton.
This article appears in the September issue. Subscribe now.