In August, nearly one year after Hurricane Maria wrecked Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and plunged its 3.4 million residents into darkness, island officials heralded a milestone: The lights were back on. The state-owned electric company even tweeted a photo of a smiling family it said was the last to receive power.
But Christine Nieves, an activist in Mariana, didn’t celebrate. She and her small mountain community near the southeastern coast had already restored electricity—on their own. Tired of waiting on the government’s halting repairs, she worked with a band of self-described “anarchistic organizers” from the mainland to install a small solar grid, one of more than a dozen like-minded efforts across Puerto Rico. By the time electric workers showed up, Mariana was two months ahead of them. (The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority declined to comment for this article.)
The power uprising over the second largest blackout in world history provides a window into the civic and political landscape in a place where government institutions, saddled by bankruptcy and a federally appointed management board, failed in devastating ways. It also underscores a sobering reality a year after Maria: Many Puerto Ricans are, to some extent, still on their own. For eight months after the storm, Mariana residents lived without stable means of lighting, refrigeration or laundry. “People were on the verge, psychologically and physically,” says Nieves.