Bureaucracy, economic woes, logistics slow return of electricity in Puerto Rico
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 30, 2017
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — More than two months after Hurricane Maria, the list of what’s needed to fix the island’s devastated electrical grid is staggering: 60,000 poles, more than 6,000 miles of electrical wire, and tens of thousands of electricians – much of it from the mainland.
In mid-November, about 500 generators were providing over 150,000 kilowatts of power – more generators installed than after any other disaster, but only about half of what’s needed, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Since the Sept. 20 storm, about 100,000 people have fled Puerto Rico, depleting an already declining population on the bankrupt island, according to the federal oversight board. Bureaucracy reigns, the economy is stagnant and with power restored to just over 50 percent of the island, some businesses remain shuttered and schools closed.
It’s hard to envision a fully vibrant territory emerging from this ruin.
“I know from a customer’s standpoint it seems like nothing is happening, and ‘Why is it taking so long?’ ” said Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, the Army Corps commander in charge of helping Puerto Rico get the lights back on. “But a storm of this magnitude combined with the vulnerability and the weakness of the system before the storm — it’s just hard to overstate.”
Drive down any highway on this hurricane-ravaged island and the storm’s effects are still visible. Giant metal electrical poles are toppled and kicked to the side like discarded toys. Concrete poles are broken in two like they were punched.
Leaning wood poles line streets like a faltering army, wires drooping and tangled.
“It’s like, you know, you had your toys on the table and someone just came in with their arm and pushed everything over,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jitu Whitehead, a noncommissioned officer whose crew from the 249th Engineering Battalion was installing a new electrical pole on the outskirts of San Juan.
For every pole or wire or substation fixed, there’s another one just up the road.
“In the neighborhoods we go into, you fix it, but the next street over looks exactly the same,” Whitehead said.
Many of the linemen here were working in Florida after Hurricane Irma on Sept. 6. He knows that getting logistics in order takes time, particularly when it means getting everything delivered to an island.
“No one should be this long without power,” Whitehead said.
A rough state of affairs
Puerto Rico’s population and economy had been on the decline for years before Maria struck. The troubled government filed for the largest bankruptcy in the history of the U.S. municipal bond market in early May, with a $74 billion debt.
The storm made everything worse, complicating efforts to rectify its long-standing economic woes.
According to a Bloomberg report Nov. 17, government bonds have dropped to as little as 24 cents on the dollar — less than half of what they were before the storm and the lowest since they were issued three years ago.
“The state of affairs in Puerto Rico existed way before these hurricanes made landfall,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees the Financial Oversight and Management Board created in 2016 to oversee Puerto Rico’s financial recovery.
“Decades of mismanagement led to a paralyzing debt burden,” he said.
“Now, with the hurricane, there is other work the board must be doing — work that is even more complicated.”
The Army Corps has been tasked with working with PREPA, the bankrupt and beleaguered Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority, to restore the grid and bring it up to code.
Building a new grid would cost $17.8 billion, according to a request by the governor submitted to Congress in November.
Compared with U.S. electrical systems, which are 20 to 25 years old and regularly updated, Puerto Rico’s grid has been around more than 40 years, mostly left to deteriorate, Holland said.
Maria simply toppled the teetering giant.
PREPA, which Bishop described as having “a long record of inadequate maintenance and political cronyism,” has no sophisticated computer systems to diagnose faults in the lines, and aerial inspections can be misleading.
It might look good and still not work.
“It might not have worked for a year,” Holland said.
PREPA, along with Army Corps teams, had to physically assess every line and pole — on highways, in towns and villages — to determine what needs to be done.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello in October pledged to restore 95 percent of the territory’s power by Dec. 15.
The task is daunting.
But the consequences are enormous.
“If Puerto Rico is going to economically recover and become vibrant, it has to have reliable, abundant and affordable energy,” Bishop said.
Gaps in the initial response after Maria’s landfall were notable. Part of the delay was the devastation itself — and the time it took to determine the magnitude of the disaster.
But Rossello and federal agencies continue to blame each other for the delay.
Rossello told reporters in New York in early November that his government and PREPA were reluctant to ask other states for aid, which is common practice after a disaster, because of concerns about how the bankrupt island would pay utility workers.
Holland said 10 days passed before a request from the governor filtered down to the Army Corps to help restore electricity and fix the grid.
“Certainly if you are in Texas or Florida or anywhere on the mainland, as soon as the hurricane passes, the governor normally requests the mutual assistance,” Holland said.
“So other utility companies from other states rush in and they go in en masse and … tackle all the work as soon as possible. That’s just not the case here.”
Rossello traded barbs with the Army Corps over the pace of the work, saying that he had hundreds of crews, or brigadas, out working while the Corps was not delivering.
“This does not have the sense of urgency that it should have,” he told The New York Times.
“He’s frustrated,” Holland told Stars and Stripes. “He wants the lights on. He’s the leader of this island so it’s certainly understandable.”
But as an engineer, and a military commander, she had to focus on “the facts and the numbers and the physics of this.”
“If we rush in, if we aren’t responsible with federal dollars, if we don’t do things the right way with quality and safety and all of those things, then that’s a different set of things we have to account for,” she said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the ranking member on the House Natural Resources committee, pressed for greater urgency.
“If a man is drowning in the ocean, you don’t stop to tell them to take swimming lessons,” he said. “Instead, you act immediately to save lives.
“Once the lights are back on and the families have access to clean drinking water and medical care, Congress can turn its attention to the future of the island and its economy,” he said. “But now, we shouldn’t be asked to look away from this administration’s embarrassing recovery effort.”
Logistics were far more complicated because Puerto Rico is an island. To get the necessary equipment and supplies meant bringing them in by aircraft or ship. Trucks and equipment had to compete for space on barges and helicopters with more immediate emergency relief supplies like food and water, Holland said.
Coming on the heels of hurricanes Irma and Harvey, stateside supplies for poles and wires had been depleted. The Army Corps had to activate the Defense Procurement Act, obtaining a priority designation so its requests for those materials would take precedence on shipments, Holland said.
Slowly, the Army Corps has been building its fleet of bucket trucks and a stockpile of poles being brought in by barge and cargo aircraft. But that process took time.
Crews continue to conduct assessments; Holland said her people still do not have a clear picture of the condition of the grid. The Army Corps now has about 1,000 people working on the lines through the two contracts. That’s up from the 640 people it had on the ground Nov. 10 but a far cry from the 60,000 crewmembers one lineman said would be needed.
PREPA filed for bankruptcy in July after failing to restructure $9 billion in bond debt and, since the storm, has been saddled with controversy over a questionable $300 million reconstruction contract with a tiny Montana company ill-equipped to tackle the island’s electrical problems. The authority canceled the contract and PREPA CEO Ricardo Ramos Rodriguez resigned Nov. 17. Rossello has appointed an interim director, but questions regarding better oversight of the troubled agency remain.
Despite the problems at PREPA, Holland said working with them has been invaluable in understanding the intricacies of the outdated system and its weaknesses. Her engineers have worked closely with the Puerto Rican linemen to assess the damage, meeting with them every day.
“We would not have been able to describe what we needed here and build the scope of work required to award hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts had it not been for the friendship, partnership and transparency of PREPA,” she said.
Rossello in early November asked Congress for $94.5 billion. President Donald Trump’s administration has requested from Congress a supplemental disaster package of $44 billion — to cover Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas and damage from West Coast wildfires. That figure is about a quarter of the combined $180 billion requested for all of those disasters, according to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
It is also “wholly inadequate and downright insulting, especially for the people of Puerto Rico who, eight to 10 weeks after Hurricanes Irma and Maria are struggling to get the lights back on,” Leahy said.
On Tuesday, Rossello announced that Puerto Rico had agreed to let the Federal Emergency Management Agency preapprove any spending of federal relief funds for the island — a move that appeared aimed at mollifying Congress, which will ultimately determine how much federal aid the territory will receive.
“We want to embark in the most transparent, effective and efficient recovery process in the history of our nation,” he said.
Soldiers with the 249th Engineer Battalion shovel debris out of an area where they were planning to tie a guy wire from a utility pole to a ground anchor to keep the pole upright in a neighborhood near San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Nov. 10, 2017.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES