Puerto Rico grid fix won't meet governor's plan, corps says

Downed electric wires are coiled up in front of a resident's home in a neighborhood near San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Nov. 10, 2017, nearly eight weeks after Hurricane Maria caused substantial damage across the island.


By CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE | Bloomberg | Published: December 14, 2017

Puerto Rico's electrical grid is unlikely to be fully restored until the end of May, the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday — months longer than the timeline offered by the island's governor.

Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, commanding general and chief engineer for the Corps, said in an interview Wednesday that he expects Puerto Rico's electric grid to reach 75 percent of customers by the end of January. That should rise to 95 percent by the end of February, and 100 percent by the end of May, he said, more than eight months after Hurricane Maria hit.

That differs from statements by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who said in October that he hoped power would be restored to 95 percent of the grid by Dec. 15, or this Friday. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority made a similar pledge last month, saying it would reach 95 percent of customers by the end of December.

The slow pace of restoring electricity following Hurricane Maria has become a symbol of the U.S. government's uneven response. Just 61 percent of electricity had been restored as of Wednesday, according to data on a website run by the island's government.

The Army Corps is a key part of a task force of U.S. government and outside groups working with Puerto Rico's government to restore power on the island.

Semonite said he had told Rossello on Oct. 27 that the Dec. 15 timeline was unrealistic. "Governor, there's no way you're going to get 95 percent," Semonite recounted telling Rossello. "And he was very, very upset."

"The bottom line is, he ought to be upset, because all of his people ought to have electricity," Semonite said. "We're just as compassionate as the governor is at getting his guys electricity. That's why I have 700 guys that are going to be there over Christmas."

To illustrate the challenge of getting the grid fully restored, Semonite described flying over a cluster of four homes on the top of a mountain, fed by a single wire that goes up the side of a cliff.

"Those four houses -- what I call the last mile -- they're going to take a long time. So I said probably the end of May to get to 100 percent. I'd love to go faster."

Justo González, PREPA's interim executive director, said the agency has had to refine its schedule because workers have found such severe damage that has required wholesale rebuilding of many parts of the grid.

"We understand just how difficult it has been for our citizens to be without power for so long and commit to continuing to do all we can to ensure PREPA has the necessary resources to complete this unprecedented power restoration effort," González said.

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