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Puerto Rico in the Dark

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Puerto Rico in the Dark

Even with the federal government in charge for more than a month, the island can’t restore its power grid. October 31, 2017
Infrastructure and energy

Because their power companies restored most service within days, Texas and Florida got through the emergency phase of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma quickly. In Houston, most of the power never even went out. But it has now been nearly six weeks since Hurricane Maria, and 70 percent of Puerto Rico remains without power, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis. It’s not clear what’s taking so long, though it has become clear that while the federal government is good at some things, taking over a local civilian-power grid—a core state and local responsibility—is not among them.

A week after the storm, Prepa, the island’s municipal-power authority, signed a preliminary contract with Montana-based Whitefish Energy, a small company with no experience managing such large projects, to reconstruct the grid. Prepa’s board ratified the $300 million agreement in mid-October. When news of the deal became public, the U.S. media cried corruption: reporters noted that Whitefish’s chief executive and President Trump’s Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, hail from the same town, and that Zinke’s son recently worked for Whitefish. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which will ultimately pay the bills, questioned the arrangement, Puerto Rico’s governor ordered Prepa to cancel it over the weekend, effectively starting everything over.

This odd episode is not even the strangest aspect of Puerto Rico’s stalled recovery. In the first week after the storm, Prepa ceded its lead role in rebuilding the power grid to Washington. On September 26, the same day Prepa inked its deal with Whitefish, the Army Corps of Engineers said that it would be “provid[ing] emergency power to critical sites, such as hospitals.” By October 9, this mission had expanded, with the Corps saying it had “received the mission assignment from FEMA to lead in the planning, coordination and integration efforts to execute electrical power grid repair on the island.” To that end, it began hiring its own contractors from the mainland. Such agreements are now valued at more than $300 million and will increase further. Prepa, bankrupt before Maria, had not built or maintained its infrastructure to withstand a hurricane.

The Army Corps plays a vital role in U.S. infrastructure, owning and operating dams and levees. But it doesn’t generally direct long-term repairs of private, civilian power grids. In Florida, after Irma, the Corps quickly completed an emergency mission to help restore power to shelters, hospitals, and other critical sites, but private power firms remained in charge of the larger repair effort. Before that, whether it was Katrina in New Orleans or Sandy in New York, local power companies, whether for-profit or locally owned, have directed mass-scale post-storm repairs and improvements to their own power grids.

Power companies restore service after a storm through a practice called “mutual aid,” through which burdened utilities appeal to other utilities for help. After Irma, New York’s Con Ed went down to Florida, and after Sandy, power crews came to New York and New Jersey from around the country to restore service. Power-company crews are nimble and fast; no one knows how to install a utility pole and string wire better than the people who do it every day. Power companies that help out a stricken counterpart, in turn, are reimbursed for their extra costs by the affected company and, sometimes, by FEMA.

So why hasn’t that happened in Puerto Rico? It’s not a question of money. Shortly after the storm, FEMA said that it would make 100 percent reimbursements for emergency power restoration. But Prepa, oddly, never asked for help. “Support . . . is initiated when the affected utility requests aid,” the American Public Power Association, the mutual-aid association of non-profit power companies, said. “To date, Prepa has not requested aid . . . rather, it has engaged Whitefish. . . . Communications with Prepa and Whitefish have been difficult.” Only this week has Prepa asked for mutual aid—but with the Army Corps in charge, this belated action only raises more questions than it answers.

By contrast, personnel in charge of other critical tasks in Puerto Rico, such as debris removal, managed to marshal help from afar. New York City, for example, sent 50 sanitation workers and building inspectors to the island. The sanitation workers just returned Monday, after three weeks of removing debris. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, heavily hit by both Irma and Maria, power restoration is proceeding through normal channels. The island’s power company, Wapa, quickly requested mutual aid. Though Wapa enjoys federal government support, it’s clear who is in charge: Wapa reports steady progress daily on its website.

Maria was an historic storm, and perhaps extenuating circumstances unique to Puerto Rico justify a radical departure from normal, successful practice. Has the Army Corps determined that Prepa is not up to restoring its own electric grid, as evidenced from the company’s dismal prestorm performance? Does the Army Corps think—improbably—that it can do this work cheaper and better than expert power companies and their contractors from the mainland? Does the federal government want to keep rebuilt power infrastructure separate from Prepa, so that Prepa’s pre-storm investors do not benefit from the mass influx of taxpayer aid?

Most, important: with the resources of the federal government behind it, what, exactly, is taking the Army Corps so long? Too many Puerto Ricans remain in the dark, both in the literal sense and when it comes to knowing why the power is still out, and who is really in charge.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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