COAMO, Puerto Rico — It took only minutes for Hurricane Maria to kill power to the Puerto Rican town of Coamo, cracking wooden poles, snapping power lines and hurling transformers to the ground.
For months, residents begged Puerto Rico's power company and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to bring back their electricity, with few results.
So the people of this town of 40,000 high in the mountains of southern Puerto Rico have started restoring power on their own, pulling power lines from undergrowth and digging holes for wooden posts in a do-it-yourself effort to solve a small part of the United States' longest-running power outage.
"If we don't do this, we'll be without power until summer," said Vice Mayor Edgardo Vazquez, who is using hand-drawn maps to organize a brigade that includes teachers, handymen, a postal worker and an accountant, backed by municipal workers with professional equipment, tools and experience in light electrical work.
Puerto Rico's power company and the Corps of Engineers have thousands of workers and managers from mainland public utilities and private companies working across the island to restore power. The federally funded multibillion-dollar effort has been slowed by rough terrain, slow arrival of supplies and delays in asking for help from power companies on the U.S. mainland after the Sept. 20 Category 4 storm. More than 400,000 power customers across Puerto Rico remain in the dark.
In Coamo, frustrated by months of heat and darkness, 60-year-old homemaker Carmita Rivera called a meeting at her home in mid-January to try to find local solutions to the problem.
"Desperation set in," Rivera said. "We all felt like: 'What about us? We're human beings. Enough is enough.'"
Fifty people showed up and swiftly went to work. In late January, a group of neighbors laid a 300-pound wooden electric post atop two logs and tipped it into a freshly dug five-foot hole.
They hooted as one man hit his pickup truck's accelerator and dragged the pole alongside the hole. The group then used a neighbor's tow truck to guide the 35-foot pole into the hole.
"We did it!" one man shouted, shaking his fist.
By law, only the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, has authority to work on the island's power grid. Coamo's vice mayor says a regional PREPA director authorized his public works department and volunteers to work on the town's lower-voltage distribution system, providing them materials or re-using cables that weren't damaged in the storm. A power company official comes by afterward to ensure the work is properly done. The higher-voltage lines that bring power to the town itself remain off limits to all but PREPA workers and authorized contractors.
No deaths or serious injuries have been reported, but Sue Kelly, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association, said having so many people working to restore power is understandable but worrying.
"The biggest issue is safety," she said. "We are making good progress. ... But uncoordinated efforts can result in death."
In the western mountain town of San Sebastian, a group of municipal workers, retired company workers and volunteers have restored power to nearly 2,000 homes despite objections from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, whose officials have filed complaints with police and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Power company spokesman Geraldo Quinones declined to comment on the community efforts, saying only that municipalities can help out by clearing roads and debris, identifying places without power and delivering materials in hard-to-reach areas.