In Puerto Rico, a new hurricane season threatens the elderly

An elderly woman prays at a chapel of the San Rafael nursing home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico February 14, 2018. Picture taken February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Nick Brown, Jessica Resnick-Ault and Ricardo Ortiz

ADJUNTAS, PUERTO RICO (Reuters) – At 84 years old and battling cancer, Israel Gonzalez Maldonado has lived without electricity for the nine months since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

His wife, Zoraida Reyes, 77, struggles to keep the house stocked with fresh food without a refrigerator. At night, she fans her husband so he can sleep.

With another hurricane season starting, older Puerto Ricans have little to protect them from another storm on an impoverished island that remains far from fully recovered. Younger and wealthier people have been moving away for years, leaving an older and sicker population in the hands of an underfunded healthcare system. Tens of thousands more have fled since Maria.

“We wish we could move, at least for the time he has left,” Reyes said of her husband.

Senior citizens make up a larger share of the population here than in all but four U.S. states, according to federal Census data. About half are disabled, more than any state.

Forty percent of seniors rely on food stamps, more than three times the percentage in New York state, the second-highest nationally.

Yet the island has just six nursing homes – with a total of 159 beds – that are certified by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) to provide rehabilitative services.

Puerto Rico relies instead on a patchwork of about 800 nursing homes licensed by the island’s Department of Family. They are typically private businesses or nonprofit organizations that care for small numbers of elderly people with limited services – and limited budgets, strained further since Maria.

A fragile healthcare system is hardly the only problem that leaves the elderly here – and all Puerto Ricans – vulnerable to another catastrophic storm.

About 7,000 houses and businesses still lack power, after Maria leveled a grid that was ill-maintained before the storm. Power utility PREPA has patched together most of the system but remains years away from making the fundamental improvements needed to enable it to withstand another hurricane.

“The grid needs to be rebuilt – not just the lines,” PREPA Chief Executive Walter Higgins said.

Maria also damaged nearly half the island’s levees. Several major water pumps, used to remove floodwater, remain in disrepair.

“God help us, but we definitely can’t handle any more hurricanes,” said Tania Vazquez, the island’s secretary of natural resources.

Governor Ricardo Rossello’s office declined to comment on the island’s hurricane preparedness or on specific efforts to protect the elderly, referring questions to other agencies.

Glorimar Andujar, Secretary of the Department of Family, said officials learned a lot from Maria about how to prepare for the next storm.

“The emergency plans are much better,” Andujar said, “because we now have an experience that no other generation of agency leaders have experienced.”


Rosa Iturrizaga runs Hostal de Amigos, a small eldercare residence in San Juan.

The home barely broke even before Maria, relying on resident fees of between $2,000 and $3,000 a month. Since then, two of 11 residents moved to the mainland, and insurance has so far not paid for about $40,000 in storm damage, Iturrizaga said. The business carries $500,000 in debt, has fallen behind on loan and tax payments and now loses up to $5,000 a month.

“I don’t know what’s kept me going,” Iturrizaga said. “I love doing this, but I’m looking at other things to do with the land.”

Another private home, the nonprofit Asilo San Rafael in Arecibo, theoretically charges residents $1,200 a month; in reality, only three of 27 residents pay full price, and at least nine pay nothing, said board member Lucila Oliver.

Operating costs run about $700,000 annually, with about $110,000 coming from a handful of subsidies from the island’s central government – subsidies she says have declined sharply in recent years as the now-bankrupt Puerto Rican government fell into a fiscal crisis, Oliver said.

The Department of Family’s Andujar disputed that the subsidies have declined, but Oliver provided Reuters with balance sheets showing a drop in department funding to $59,000 this fiscal year from $80,000 last year.

Maria brought new costs: about $1,200 a month to bring in water tanks, and thousands more on diesel for generators. Oliver said San Rafael is “used to living on the edge,” but says the edge has drawn closer since the hurricanes.

Many elderly and disabled here find a way to get by at home, with little care. Some seek help from the Department of Family, applying for a caregiver to come by just a day or two a week, said Andujar.

Many are turned away, she said.

“The funding is very limited,” she said, “and the need is very big.”


This hurricane season, the department is making sure it has accurate locations for all licensed nursing homes after cell phone service disruptions stymied the response to Hurricane Maria. The homes, Andujar said, are now required to have 30 days of food on hand, and the department has also requested they have generators and water tanks.

She added that about 315,000 elderly people currently receive benefits as part of a $1.27 billion federal allocation under the Nutritional Assistance Program.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) remains on the island and said it has given municipalities money to improve community resilience.

Dr. Carmen Sanchez Salgado, Puerto Rico’s ombudsmen for the elderly, said her staff has been educating elderly people about the emergency supplies they need.

Charities and nonprofits have also helped. The nonprofit PRxPR, created in response to Maria, is funding solar panels for elderly people and community centers.

One such center in Naguabo had no power as recently as four weeks ago, said Carmen Baez, the group’s co-founder.

“Our installation was it,” she said.

(Reporting by Nick Brown, Jessica Resnick-Ault and Ricardo Ortiz; Additional reporting by Robin Respaut; Editing by Daniel Bases and Brian Thevenot)

For desperate Puerto Ricans, fuel a precious commodity

FILE PHOTO: People line up to buy gasoline at a gas station after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. Picture taken September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

By Robin Respaut, Dave Graham and Jessica Resnick-Ault

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Puerto Rico resident Marangelly Garcia waited eight hours for diesel to fuel her family’s generator on Monday, but the supply ran out before she got to the front of the line.

The beauty products distributor tried again Tuesday, waking up at 4 a.m. But the line in her municipality of Guaynabo, near San Juan, was still formidable.

Her latest strategy to get a place in line: “I’m going to be camping tonight.”

With Puerto Rico’s electric grid in shambles after Hurricane Maria, gasoline and diesel have become liquid gold in this U.S. territory. The island’s 3.4 million residents urgently need it to fuel their automobile tanks and power generators to light their homes and businesses.

But like so many other necessities here, the distribution of fuel is reliant on a transportation network crippled by the storm.

Puerto Rico gets most of its fuel sent by ship from the United States. But restrictions at its ports, with one closed and another operating only during the daytime, has limited shipping. Meanwhile, tanker trucks have had difficulty navigating the island’s blocked and damaged roads.

U.S. Air Force Colonel Michael Valle, on hand for relief efforts in San Juan, said he was most concerned about “the level of desperation” that could arise if fuel distribution did not return to normal within a couple of weeks.

Complicating those efforts is the shutdown of Puerto Rico’s primary fuel storage point. Known as the Yabucoa terminal, the facility is located in the hard-hit southeastern part of the island, where Maria first made landfall. The terminal was closed prior to the storm and has yet to re-open, according to Buckeye Partners, the terminal operator, which said a full assessment of the facility is under way.

Yabucoa can store up to 4.6 million barrels of crude oil, gasoline or products like fuel oil and diesel needed for power generation. That storage point is used for distribution for other islands in the Caribbean as well.

Adding to Puerto Rico’s difficulties is the sudden surge in demand for diesel to power generators. A shipping broker who was not authorized to speak to the press said concerns about diesel supplies were growing.

The few gas stations operating in Puerto Rico have attracted miles-long lines of cars, where drivers wait seven hours or longer in queues that snake through neighborhoods, up highway exit ramps and onto freeways.

“People here are going crazy trying to find gas,” said motorist Peter Matos, 60, of Yauco, a city in the southwestern part of the island. “I have about half a tank left.”

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told mayors he will work with U.S. authorities to improve fuel distribution, said Israel Morales, a communications advisor to municipalities in Puerto Rico.

The day after the storm hit, Rossello advised mayors that there was sufficient fuel, Morales said, but the problem was distribution as it was stored at the ports and terminals on the island, and could not be easily routed to areas that needed it.

The island’s residents use about 155,000 barrels of fuel a day, less than 1 percent of the 19 million barrels consumed daily in the United States. Puerto Rico has no operating refineries, as the last one idled in 2009.

The good news is that the Port of San Juan, the island’s primary port, has experienced minimal damage, according to Jose Luis Ayala, chairman and director general of Puerto Rico’s division of shipping company Crowley Maritime Corp.

He said ships carrying fuel were moved south out of Hurricane Maria’s path, and were able to get to the Port of San Juan once the terminal re-opened on Friday.

“Even though there was some damage, it was functional,” he said. According to Thomson Reuters shipping data, three vessels were unloading fuel at San Juan as of Tuesday, while three others were waiting for opportunities to unload as well.

Large convoys of fuel trucks were seen traveling the highways on Monday, the first time in several days those vehicles were out in force. Hospitals and fuel stations are taking deliveries of diesel via trucks escorted by armed guards.

As of Monday, 91 trucks were supplying fuel and 108 filling stations were being guarded by the U.S. National Guard, according to a Tuesday statement from the island’s Secretary of Public Affairs, Ramon Rosario Cortes.

(Reporting By Robin Respaut and David Graham in San Juan, and Jessica Resnick Ault in New York; Additional reporting by Ricardo Ortiz in San Juan and Marianna Parraga in Houston; Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

GE fixing bug in software after warning about power grid hacks

FILE PHOTO: The logo of a General Electric (GE) facility is seen behind tree branches in Medford, Massachusetts, U.S., April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

By Jim Finkle

(Reuters) – General Electric Co <GE.N> said on Wednesday it is fixing a bug in software used to control the flow of electricity in a utility’s power systems after researchers found that hackers could shut down parts of an electric grid.

The vulnerability could enable attackers to gain remote control of GE protection relays, enabling them to “disconnect sectors of the power grid at will,” according to an abstract posted late last week on the Black Hat security conference website.

Protection relays are circuit breakers that utilities program to open and halt power transmission when dangerous conditions surface.

Interest in grid security has intensified amid the increased use of cyber weapons by nation states, including two high-profile cyber attacks in Ukraine that authorities in Kiev have blamed on Russia.

Three New York University security experts are scheduled to discuss the issue at the Las Vegas Black Hat hacking conference in July. They could not be reached immediately for comment.

GE is not aware of any cases in which hackers exploited the bug to cause power outages, said GE spokeswoman Annette Busateri. The bug only involves older GE protection relays introduced in the 1990s “before current industry expectations for security,” she said.

“We have been in the process of issuing notifications and providing product upgrades to our affected customer base on available firmware updates to address this issue,” she said.

GE has issued patches for five of six models affected by the vulnerability and will soon release a patch for the sixth model, Busateri said.

Michael Assante, former chief security officer with the North American Electric Reliability Corp, which regulates the North American grid, said the product was still widely deployed because the industry runs systems for decades before upgrading to new technologies.

“This is certainly a significant issue,” he said.

Hackers caused power to go out in 2015 and 2016 attacks in Ukraine by using other techniques to force breakers to open, Assante said.

(Reporting by Jim Finkle in Toronto; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

California power grid passes first heat wave test amid gas shortage

Lost Angeles skyline

(Reuters) – California’s power grid passed its first test of the summer with no rolling blackouts on Monday, when customers cranked up their air conditioners as temperatures soared into the triple-digits for the second consecutive day in some southern parts of the state.

The California Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s power grid, issued a so-called flex alert on Sunday, urging homes and businesses to conserve energy on Monday afternoon.

As consumers heeded that call and temperatures on Monday came in a little cooler than expected, the ISO cut its peak power demand projection for the day to 43,728 megawatts from 45,316 MW.

Monday’s alert was the first big test of power generators’ ability to meet heightened energy demands in the greater Los Angeles area without natural gas supplies normally furnished by the now-crippled Aliso Canyon. The storage field, California’s largest, has been effectively idled since a major well rupture there last autumn.

So far, the ISO has not issued another flex alert for Tuesday but said on its website it would be “helpful” if customers conserve energy.

With cooler temperatures expected for the rest of the week, the ISO forecast demand would peak at 42,581 MW on Tuesday and just 39,036 on Wednesday.

AccuWeather meteorologists forecast the mercury would reach 87 degrees Fahrenheit (31 Celsius) in Los Angeles on Tuesday before falling to a near-normal 82 degrees on Wednesday. They had exceeded 100 degrees on Monday.

With Aliso Canyon shut down, state regulators have warned that the Los Angeles area faces up to 14 days of gas shortages severe enough to trigger blackouts this summer.

Aliso Canyon, owned by Sempra Energy’s Southern California Gas Co unit, normally supplies the region’s 17 gas-fired power plants, hospitals, refineries and other key parts of the state’s economy.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

Heat wave tests Southern California’s power grid amid gas shortage

Thermometer sign reads 118 degrees, heat

By Steve Gorman and Nichola Groom

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California’s power grid operators warned homes and businesses on Monday to conserve electricity as rising demand for air conditioning stoked by a record-setting heat wave across the U.S. Southwest tested the region’s generating capacity.

The so-called Flex Alert was posted until 9 p.m. Pacific time during a second day of triple-digit temperatures that strained Southern California’s energy production, creating a potential for rolling blackouts on the first official day of summer.

But the peak hour for energy demand came and went Monday evening without disruption of the region’s power delivery network, the California Independent System Operator (ISO) reported.

“Since we’re past that and have not experienced any trouble, I think we’re headed into the safe zone,” agency spokeswoman Anne Gonzales told Reuters.

Temperatures were expected to begin abating on Tuesday, according to weather forecasts. As of Monday night, there were no plans to extend the Flex Alert, ISO officials said.

Monday’s alert was the first big test of power generators’ ability to meet heightened energy demands in the greater Los Angeles area without natural gas supplies normally furnished by the now-crippled Aliso Canyon gas storage field, effectively idled since a major well rupture there last fall.

The oven-like heat prompted the city of Los Angeles to keep its network of public “cooling centers” – libraries, recreation centers and senior centers – open for extended hours as a haven for people whose homes lack air conditioning.

Area home improvement and hardware merchants were doing a brisk business in fans and AC window units.

Brett Lopes, 31, a freelance lighting technician, stopped in a Home Depot outlet near downtown to buy supplies for a homemade air conditioner he called a “swamp cooler” to use while he waited for his landlord to repair his broken AC unit.

“It’s brutal,” he said of the heat, explaining that he looked up directions on YouTube for assembling the makeshift cooling device. “It doesn’t work as well as AC, but it’s better than sitting in 100 degrees.”

Others flocked to public swimming pools.

“It was really refreshing today, but more crowded than usual,” said Paul Stephens, 31, a pastor who was swimming laps at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center in Pasadena, where the mercury climbed to 108 Fahrenheit (42 Celsius) .


The ISO, which runs the state’s power grid, urged consumers on Monday to cut back on electricity usage, especially during late-afternoon hours.

Utility customers were advised to turn off unnecessary lights, set air conditioners to 78 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, and wait until after 9 p.m. to run major appliances, such as clothes washers and dryers.

Gonzales credited public cooperation with the flex alert for likely helping avert widespread outages on Monday.

Large stretches of three states sweltered in a second straight day of record, triple-digit temperatures, as the National Weather Service posted excessive-heat warnings through Wednesday for southern portions of California, Arizona and Nevada, though the hot spell appeared to have peaked on Monday.

Power customers ranging from homes and hospitals to oil refineries and airports are at risk of losing energy at some point this summer because a majority of electric-generating stations in California use gas as their primary fuel.

Since the energy crisis of 2000-2001, the ISO has imposed brief, rotating outages in 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2015, mostly related to unexpected transmission line or power plant failures during periods of unusually high demand.

With California’s largest natural gas storage field shut down indefinitely at Aliso Canyon, state regulators have warned that Los Angeles faces up to 14 days of gas shortages severe enough to trigger blackouts this summer.

Aliso Canyon, owned by Southern California Gas Co, a division of San Diego-based utility giant Sempra Energy, normally supplies the region’s 17 gas-fired power plants, hospitals, refineries and other key parts of California’s economy, including 21 million residents.

The gas leak there, ranking as the worst-ever accidental methane release in the United States, forced thousands of nearby residents from their homes for several months after it was detected last October. The leak was finally plugged in February.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler and Andrew Hay)