A Year in the Dark

KM: This 99% Invisible. I’m Katie Mingle, filling in for Roman Mars.

KM: In the early morning of September 20th, 2017, a category 4 hurricane hit the island of Puerto Rico.

(news)

KM: Maria was a beast of a hurricane; the strongest one to hit the Island since 1932. The wind was blowing 155 miles an hour, which is very close to being a category 5. And it didn’t just hit one stretch of the coast, it actually moved across the whole island, ripping up everything in its path.

DA: You know brush everywhere, trees down, covering the street, power lines down obviously everywhere. You know, the entire island in the dark.

KM: That is Daniel Alarcon, he spent some time reporting in Puerto Rico after the storm and wrote an article about it for Wired magazine.

DA: The next morning people wake up, they go out of their houses, their apartments, they look out in the streets to survey the damage and start trying to make sense of what they’re seeing in front of them.

KM: And one of the people out there that day driving around in a state of utter shock, was a guy named Jorge Bracero.

JB (from video): “Oh god please god please”

KM: That’s from a video that Jorge took the day after the storm. He’s from the capital city of San Juan, and he told me he was just totally caught off guard by how bad this storm was.

JB: It really became obviously known for everybody around that we were in deep trouble.

KM: But it wasn’t for a few days, when Jorge actually made it into work, that he fully grasped the scale of the crisis. He works at PREPA which stands for Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority, it’s the public utility that provides electricity for nearly the entire island.

JB: I actually arrive at the power plant, I notice that I was one of the few that actually made it to the power plant because most people live inland.

KM: When he gets there he makes his way over to a big computer screen that shows the outline of Puerto Rico, and inside of that, a bunch of lines, kind of like a big connect the dots with each line represented a power line.

JB: And every blinking line means a downed power line, and every single line was down. The whole island was blinking. Every single line was down. Every single line on the island was down; and that had never happened before.

DA: The trajectory of Maria was almost as if it had been designed by an evil genius. The way it cut across the island was such that it essentially struck every major transmission line.

KM: The scale of the destruction to the power grid was hard even for Jorge Bracero to comprehend. And he knew that day, that he would spend the next several months helping Puerto Rico recover through his work with PREPA. What he didn’t know yet was that thousands of people would come to count on him; specifically, him, to help them get through their year in the dark. Jorge Bracero is one of those people who you can tell you’re going to like just by seeing a picture of him. He’s in his late 30s with short brown hair and a beard, and he just looks like a nice guy. I think it’s something about his eyes… Daniel Alarcon describes him as “delightfully nerdy.”

DA: He’s a guy who will sit and explain to you how an electrical grid works. You know, like, and continue to explain it in minute detail even after it’s clear that you like can no longer understand what he’s talking about.

KM: Jorge has worked for PREPA for 13 years and his job there is a grueling one. He’s responsible for operating two 15-story tall boilers, These boilers are heated by 20 giant burners that Jorge also looks after, and so he’s constantly hiking up and down stairs to service different parts of this massively tall equipment.

Jorge: It’s extremely hot. Every day you’re just smelling off of petrol and diesel, and it’s extremely exhausting. Sometimes you just hate it.

KM: When Maria hit, Jorge and his wife Charlot rode out the storm at her family’s house. They weren’t hurt, but they were surrounded by devastation. And they found out some really sad news. Charlot’s best friend, who was pregnant, had gone into stress-induced early labor the day the storm hit and lost the baby. This was particularly frightening to them because Charlot was also pregnant.

JB: It was the most tense I’ve ever been in my life

KM: What if Charlot also went into early labor? Or, what if the baby was born, but couldn’t survive the post-Maria world with no electricity and temperatures routinely in the 90s?

JB: Because when you sleep at night, that heat was so unbearable. I’m serious. The amount of heat in the air was so, so brutal. you would think, “You know, I’m just going to get naked outside because I can’t contain this damn heat.” So I’m thinking a newborn can’t survive this.

KM: Jorge even considered trying to get his wife off of the island.

JB: But eight months pregnant they don’t allow you to fly.

KM: After the storm, Jorge and Charlot bounced from place to place, staying with friends who had generators. At home, Jorge fretted over his wife and the baby who was coming, ready or not, in November. At work, things were even more stressful. The first priority was to get power to hospitals and water treatment plants. Jorge’s power plant was one of 7 major plants on the island, but all of the others were down, and without those to help, his kept crashing.

JB: Over and over again because, you know, it would connect as many hospitals as we can, but it just wouldn’t hold it.

KM: Jorge described this like a tug of war. The power plants are on one side and they are giants, but the consumers on the other side and they pull hard. If one power plant goes down, the others will have to work harder and they get tired – sometimes to the point of collapse. After Maria, there was only one giant power plant on Jorge’s side of the rope and on the other side, hospitals and water treatment plants which were pulling like crazy.

JB: Every time there’s a collapse, you have to reboot everything again. Eight hours of work just went down the drain, and you have to restart from step 1.

KM: With just one plant that was constantly collapsing, they had to triage.

JB: It’s like, I only have one power plant that just got fired up, and I only have enough power for one of those two hospitals right there.

KM: Out in the field, things weren’t any better. Lines were down all over the island and there weren’t nearly enough workers to fix them. Eventually, support would arrive from the U.S mainland, but for the first week or so Puerto Ricans were basically on their own.

JB: You know, we only had 230 power brigades. That’s all we have for the company, for the island, and that is not enough. That is just not enough

KM: There about 3 workers in a brigade, so that’s 690 people give or take. As a point of comparison, as Florida prepared for Irma, they had 16,000 workers on call. But for anyone paying attention, it was no surprise that PREPA did not have the resources to respond to this disaster. Again, here’s Daniel Alarcon.

DA: Before Maria, the island was in a terrible economic state. A decade or more of economic stagnation.

(news)

KM: In the decades before Maria, businesses had left the island in droves as the U.S. government phased out a series of tax breaks. To make up for all the lost revenue, the Puerto Rican government began borrowing money in the form of bonds. Year after year issuing more and more bonds, kind of hoping things would turn around. But things did not turn around. By the time Maria hit, the government was in the middle of an enormous debt crisis.

DA: And in the course of that, PREPA was not spared, and PREPA is saddled over the course of many many years with a lot of debt. Nine billion dollars in debt. Or it could have, no, no that sounds like a lot. Can I look at my article?

KM: Sure. Yeah, yeah.

DA: Because I’m not sure…..

KM: Daniel had to actually stop and check his notes while we were talking to make sure that this was right.

DA: Wow. Yeah, no that’s it. That’s it. That’s insane.

DA: Because of costs, and because of debt they’re constantly postponing maintenance.

KM: Like, for example, in the mainland U.S the vegetation is kept mowed so that there’s basically a road that runs underneath the power lines.

DA: That’s called right of way, right? And you’re supposed to maintain the right of way to make it easy in the case of, you know, some disaster to access the fallen towers. Right? So in Puerto Rico, that doesn’t exist.

KM: When Maria hit, PREPA had been limping along. Now they would have to deal with the biggest crisis the island had ever faced. But there was another problem, and it was a big one. They basically had no strategy for communicating with the public.

JB: PREPA a didn’t have a presence on Twitter or Facebook. The Twitter feed was all but dead. The Facebook page was non-existent. There was no communication saying to the people where the brigades were working. Everything was kept hush hushed just to prevent conflict.

KM: And with little actual information from PREPA, TV news stations just kind of made stuff up…which made Jorge want to throw his television across the room.

JB: There was a political analyst, and he was saying, what he was saying was wrong, first, completely wrong. Not only that, he was inciting more fear and desperation rather than comfort. And I spent that night just screaming at the TV, my family was you know, just telling me to be quiet. But that action right there is basically what, you know, it just gave me an epiphany.

DA: He felt like, people need to hear what’s really happening.

JB: I decided to become the news outlet.

DA: Jorge starts this one-man campaign to educate Puerto Ricans about electrical power.

KM: He’d do it on his Facebook page, and he wouldn’t ask for permission.

DA: So early on, Jorge’s posts are very technical and very specific. It’s just like, you know, such-and-such brigade will be at such-and-such line, you know, working to restore such and such wattage to such-and-such neighborhood.

JB: That information was basically for company use. So, I decided to start leaking that information to the public.

KM: Every night, Jorge would come home from a 16-hour shift at work, hang his smelly clothes out on the porch, and start writing.

JB: I was spending around four hours just writing and calling friends from the field, and asking them to validate their information. I never revealed any sources that I had because I was afraid for any backlash that they would get.

KM: After he’d gathered all the information from his sources in the field, Jorge would type out these extremely long posts. Sometimes 1000 words or more with his thumbs on an iPhone. Cell service was so spotty that Sometimes he’d have to drive to find a signal. His wife Charlot, who was still pregnant would be like, “What are you doing?!?”

JB: My wife would be angry.

KM: But then something happened. People started responding. More and more people started sharing Jorge’s posts.

DA: Posts of his were getting you know, thousands of reposts and you know, hundreds and hundreds of comments. He switched at a certain point from a personal page to like a fan page.

JB: That was my wife’s idea. She realized that it was big and it was important, so I decided to post every day.

KM: Jorge wanted to give people information, but he also wanted to show them that people were actually out there working on getting their power back. It was just a really difficult problem to fix.

DA: There’s a basic problem to the grid. Which is, the majority of the population lives in the North. So imagine like a rectangle, across the middle like is a is a mountain range, and and the majority of the population lives above that mountain range, and the majority of the power is below that mountain range.

KM: And servicing the towers in the mountains was not easy.

DA: That involves in some cases, you know, flying a tower in by helicopter and then dropping it in, and then guys hiking in, and trying to set it up.

KM: On top of the difficulty of the work, PREPA just didn’t have the supplies it needed. Remember, Maria was the third in a series of devastating hurricanes that season. This hurricane triple whammy meant that all the things Puerto Rico needed were in high demand in other places.

JB: So we had no materials, no anything.

DA: Like basic stuff. Like, not having enough nuts and bolts. You know, screws. I met guys who were like finding, stuff in the grass and they’re like, “Huh, can I use this?” and this stuff is like 60 yrs old.

KM: As PREPA did the slow work of restoring electricity, Puerto Ricans who could afford them, relied on generators for power. There were so many that the noise of them drowning out the natural sounds of the island

DA: The sound of the “cookie cookie cookie cookie!” Like that sound had been replaced by the sound of like, “burrrrrrrrrrrrrr” which was like the horrible, horrible like, rumble of hundreds of generators.

KM: Meanwhile, in post after post on Facebook, Jorge did his best to explain why things were moving so slowly.

DA: And I think he did a good job at that critical moment of trying to explain to people, you know, this is the reality of the grid that we have. A grid that was flawed even before Maria came and wrecked it.

KM: But if you scroll through Jorge’s posts, you’ll see that they aren’t just technical information, he’s also encouraging people to be there best selves, and look out for each other.

JB: All I’m thinking is like, Do you imagine? If you had one community that has power and the community next it does not, how that people are going to start, you know, bad lashing out and start feeling resentment, and jealousy, there’s going to be riots in the streets.

KM: Can you read one of these little pep talks that you wrote? Here, I’m going to send you one on messenger.

JB: Katie Mingle.

KM: Yeah.

JB: lemme see.

KM: Yeah, so if you could read that, maybe first in Spanish and then you can tell us what it means in English.

Jorge: Yeah, it says, Se que la mejor a tu lado esta obscuro. Va a aprender. si ya estas prendido, ayudo los apegados. mira las areas. da de di lo mejor que puedas. (takes deep breath, choking up) haz hielo. cocina y lava ropa de los vecinos. No estas olvidado no estas solo. este momento va a pasar.

JB: What is says is, “I know that next to you everything is in darkness. It’s going to light up. If you’re already powered up, help the ones in need. Do the best thing that you can. Make ice, cook, clean their clothes. You are not forgotten, you are never alone. This moment will pass…”

That’s what it says. You just brought back a lot of memories.

KM: Over time, Jorge’s posts earned him a kind of celebrity status on the island.

DA: I went to go see a comedy show, and he was mentioned in the comedy show and everyone cracked up. Like, an entire theater, talking like, hundreds of people. These howls of recognition and like, applause, and people doubled over laughing because it seemed like everybody was checking every day what Jorge Bracero was saying.

JB: It’s the first time in my life that I became a meme.

KM: One Jorge meme was an image of his face on one of those latin prayer candles.

JB: They would say, they would say, “Don’t let this candle burn out if you want power.”

KM: Another meme referred to him as “Saint Beard.”

JB: I had a very very rough beard, it wasn’t trimmed down, so they started calling me Saint Beard. You know, caress his beard if you want power.

KM: By this point, Jorge’s bosses knew what he was doing, and whether they approved or not, they sort of had to go along because the public was on his side.

DA: People were stopping him in the streets to thank him and…

JB: And when they do see me on the street, they give me a hug because I’m not I’m not usually a handshake guy. I’m more of a hug guy.

KM: On November 14, 2017 Jorge’s baby was born; a healthy baby girl who they named Leia. Amazingly, Charlot’s mom and dad had just gotten power the day before, so when they left the hospital, the family went straight to her parents’ air-conditioned house with their new baby girl.

By Christmas about half of the island had their power restored, but the mood was grim. So many people had lost friends or relatives or had their homes destroyed in the storm. Many people were still in the dark, and no one felt much like celebrating. Still, there were moments of lightness. A local musician had re-written the song “All I Want For Christmas” so that so instead of all I want for Christmas is you… It says, “all I want for Christmas is luz,” which means light in Spanish. One line in the re-written song even name drops Jorge; pleading in Spanish, “Jorge Bracero please give me what I want.”

KM: Okay I’m sending you this song, that you posted on Facebook, do you see it?

JB: Oh my God you have the video of me singing! (laughs)

(song) Solo queiro una cosa para esta navidad..

KM: Eventually, the woman who wrote the parody song reached out to Jorge and they made a video of the two of them singing it together.

[Jorge starts singing]

Yo no queiro regalitos debajo me arbolito
Yo te queiro para me, y que pronto estes aqui
Haz me sueno realidad – todo lo que quiero esssss luuuuuuz.

Jorge: (laughs) Oh yeah, this is great. I’m gonna watch this again, later on. I almost forgot about this!

KM: By Spring, around 85 percent of the island had power. Still, there were thousands of people who didn’t.

DA: In the spring I visited a, kind of old folks home up in the hills, and at the bottom of the hill there was power, but there was no power, and they just couldn’t understand why. And they were just beside themselves and just were desperate. And the sense of being forgotten, you know?

KM: Jorge continued with his daily updates: which lines were being fixed, where the brigades were headed next. And to keep up a sense of momentum, he also shared videos as new places got power. Like this one, where an elementary school in the town of Puerto Nuevo finally gets electricity.

(cheers)

KM: This video was taken on someone’s iPhone from the hallway of the school. Kids are running by with their arms in the air going completely bananas. The teachers are jumping up and down. It’s just pure joy.

JB: It made me so happy to see it, that I figured people would be happy to see it too.

KM: Every week a new town was celebrating.

JB: So I started telling people on the post, “If the power comes back, tape it.”

KM: A lot of these celebration videos included fireworks, which Jorge said in real life became sort of a beacon. You’d see them from far away, and you’d know.

JB: That guy just got power right now, and this is their celebration.

KM: In the comments to these celebration videos, Jorge assured people that soon it would be their turn.

JB: “Just remember that even if you don’t have power right now, you will have it, and this is gonna be you.”

KM: Finally, In August of 2018, PREPA announced that the entire island had been reconnected to the grid. It was six weeks before the year anniversary of Maria, and just in time for the next hurricane season. PREPA meanwhile, is arguably in a worse place than it was before Maria. There’s been a lack of steady leadership over the last year, with 5 different directors cycling through the position at the helm.

DA: One guy lasted you know, like, a day. There was a sense of an absolutely rudderless ship to be honest.

KM: For years, a weird FEMA rule had been in place that recipients of disaster money couldn’t replace anything with a different, more expensive thing. For example, wooden posts couldn’t be replaced with stronger metal posts, so Puerto Ricans didn’t actually get the opportunity to improve their infrastructure. It’s the same grid they had before, with a population that is significantly more vulnerable. And Daniel says this part can’t be overstated…Puerto Ricans were traumatized by Maria.

DA: It’s not just that they went through this storm and then went through the aftermath of the storm, it’s what the aftermath of the storm told them, which is essentially, “We don’t care about you, you’re forgotten, you don’t matter.” The depth of this wound is just very, very, deep.

KM: Now PREPA is in the process of privatizing. Basically selling itself off, piece by piece in hopes that a private company or various private companies will be able to deliver a better service than the government has, but a lot of people are skeptical. Jorge Bracero is still working at PREPA, still doing the hot, exhausting job of maintaining a 15 story boiler. He’d like to stop doing such hard, physical labor. He’d like someone to put him in charge of social media, or put his other talents to use

JB: I’m up for it. I would love that.

KM: But so far, they haven’t. Hurricane season was in full swing when I talked to Jorge, so of course I asked him how he was feeling about that.

JB: When people ask me if I’m ready for a next hurricane. I’m like, “No, we need a break. We need time and just-just give us i dunno, maybe two years, just give us that time, that window, in which our people can keep working, keep working, keep working so that that system can hold a little longer.”

DA: Climate change and everything that comes with it is a reality. You know, hurricane seasons are going to get longer, we’re going to see more, and that’s that’s pretty scary.

KM: Jorge told me he thinks Puerto Ricans could survive another hurricane if they had to; another year in the dark even. He wouldn’t worry as much about the island devolving into anarchy as he once did. He saw the best of people after Maria, and he thinks they could do it again… Just please, please.. not this year.

Credits

Production

Producer Katie Mingle spoke with Daniel Alarcón, of Radio Ambulante; and Jorge Bracero, power plant operator at PREPA.

Comments (6)

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  1. Fox

    99% Invisible and other Radiotopia shows were a great source of distraction and entertainment for me in the months after María passed. With a spotty signal it would take a few hours sometimes to download newly released episodes, but once they did it was the highlight of my night. Thank you for producing this episode.

  2. Carlos Corrada

    Katie, it was exactly a year ago –on Halloween evening– that we got our power back at home. We were lucky to have power back “just 6 weeks” after Maria. I was listening to the podcast on my way home from work and couldn’t hold back the tears. Thanks for a great episode.

  3. John Q

    Great story, it reminded me a lot of the Breaking Bad News episode from a few months ago. I think a lot of professions and organizations take for granted the human side in tough situations, even if it is with the good intention of spending the time elsewhere fixing more problems. But it’s amazing how far some outreach and clarity can take things.

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