House Committee Reviews Emergency Response and Energy Infrastructure Recovery Efforts

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing today on the federal response to the 2017 hurricane season.  The hearing provided information to help assess energy infrastructure response and recovery efforts under the varying circumstances of the four hurricanes that made landfall this past season, including information concerning the use of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in energy supply emergencies.

The following issues were examined at the hearing:

  • Coordination of Federal/State/Industry emergency response and restoration;
  • Assuring future critical energy infrastructure protection;
  • Preparation for fuel and electricity supply disruptions;
  • Emergency waivers; and
  • Strategic Petroleum Reserve modernization

The following representatives were present at the hearing: Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH), Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA), Rep. McKinley (R-WV), Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), Rep. Billy Long (R-MO), Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Rep. Gene Green (D-TX), Rep. Greg Harper (R-MS), Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Rep. Michael Doyle (D-PA), Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA).

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., in his opening statement, called to action FEMA for lack of involvement in contract negotiations with Whitefish. Pallone also stated that there needs to be an assessment of how the federal government can invest wisely in rebuilding the power grid in Puerto Rico, through innovative was or privatization.

The following witnesses gave their prepared testimony regarding to Puerto Rico:

Ms. Patricia Hoffman, Acting Under Secretary for Science and Energy and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, U.S. Department of Energy: “Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane on September 20, bringing powerful winds and major flooding that destroyed much of the territory’s transmission and distribution infrastructure and left virtually all 1.6 million electricity customers on the island without power. According to initial estimates from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), at least 80 percent of the transmission and distribution system was affected by Hurricane Maria. However, as of October 31, 33.4% of normal peak load has been restored. While this figure has little bearing on customer-level outcomes, it may be the best proxy available to measure progress in this challenging environment. In Puerto Rico, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has assumed a significant role in the emergency restoration of electrical infrastructure. USACE Temporary Emergency Power Planning and Response Teams are assisting with assessments and generator installations at critical facilities. In October, USACE was also tasked to lead planning, coordination, and integration efforts to support Puerto Rico with the restoration of the electrical power grid due to impacts caused by Hurricane Maria. USACE is managing this effort as the lead for Emergency Support Function #3 – Engineering and Public Works, in close coordination with DOE. DOE has a responder deployed to coordinate with FEMA as well as seven subject matter experts from the PMAs to provide technical support to USACE with restoration planning, cost estimates, validation, and quality assurance. Additionally, through DOE-funded projects, we are leveraging the expertise of our National Laboratories to develop potential long-term solutions to improve the resiliency of the Puerto Rican infrastructure. I want to assure the Committee that DOE will continue to support the work needed to restore power to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.”

Mr. Ray Alexander, Director of Contingency Operations, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: “FEMA has identified $1.7 billion in Mission Assignments for the Corps to assist in Hurricanes Irma and Maria response and recovery (45 Mission Assignments totaling $176.3 million for Hurricane Irma and 34 Mission Assignments totaling $1.5 billion for Hurricane Maria). Currently, the Corps has over 1,243 personnel deployed in various locations supporting the recovery missions. As of October 31, 2017, the Corps and its contractors have completed 740 of 827 requested pre-installation inspections (for temporary generators) and 392 generator installations in Puerto Rico. In order for the Corps and its contractors to install temporary covering (blue roof), the government and its contractors require validated rights of entry. In Puerto Rico, the Corps and its contractors have completed 3,986 blue roof installations and collected over 17,000 rights of entry. As of October 31, 2017, the Corps has removed approximately 141,000 cubic yards of the estimated over 1 million cubic yards of debris in the U.S. Virgin Islands and 62,500 cubic yards of the estimated over 6 million cubic yards of debris in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, Corps Dam and Levee teams inspected 17 priority dam locations and Guajataca Dam was the only site deemed in critical condition. Hurricane Maria caused a significant rise in the water level of the dam, and resulted in overflow of the spillway. The spillway structure was compromised and the surrounding area began to erode, posing immediate risk to 70,000 residents. Corps teams placed over 500 Jersey barriers and over 1,300 super sand bags to cease any further erosion and allow for long-term repair of the spillway. Additionally, the Corps teams cleared existing outflow conduits and are positioning to place piping and pumps to further reduce the water level in the dam. When the water level reaches 25 feet below the spillway, more substantial repairs will begin. On September, 30 2017, the Corps was given a FEMA Mission Assignment, within the authority of the Stafford Act, to assist the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) in further repairing the power system to its pre-storm condition. The Corps is conducting this mission.”

Mr. Thomas Fanning, President and CEO, Southern Company, on behalf of The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council: “This hearing comes in response to a series of devastating events. In August, Hurricane Harvey’s high winds, torrential rains, and storm surge caused significant damage and catastrophic flooding in parts of Texas and Louisiana. Days later, Hurricane Irma devastated parts of the Caribbean, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and portions of Puerto Rico, and brought unprecedented damage to the southeastern United States. Every county in Florida was impacted by the storm, as well as parts of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. 5 Following Irma, Hurricane Maria developed in the Atlantic Ocean as one of the strongest hurricanes on record. After impacting the U.S. Virgin Islands, Maria passed directly over Puerto Rico, knocking out power to the entire commonwealth. The work to restore power in Puerto Rico and in the Virgin Islands continues. Most tragically, each of these events resulted in the loss of life. Maria was the second Category 5 storm of the 2017 season and caused widespread destruction to all infrastructures on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, including the energy grid. Power restoration has been, and will continue to be, a challenging and complicated effort. The entire electric power industry continues to closely coordinate with its federal government partners to support these efforts. Unlike Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, mutual assistance has yet to be triggered in response to Maria. Mainland electric companies are ready to support the restoration and rebuild of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and provide any expertise, resources, crews, or materials needed to turn the lights on for our fellow Americans.”

Mr. Ramon Luis Nieves, Attorney at Law, former member, Senate of Puerto Rico: “In order to guarantee that federal funds to build a new energy grid are properly used and allocated, I propose that the Revitalization Coordinator and the PR Energy Commission be given sole authority over PREPA. PROMESA already mandates that the Revitalization Coordinator will work with the PR Energy Commission, so this proposal is a logical step. Neither Puerto Rico, nor the U.S. government, needs another Whitefish situation. Thank you for this opportunity. The people of Puerto Rico urgently need to turn the lights back on. But we also demand the resources to create a new energy model. Our lives depend on it.”

Ms. Catherine Kennedy, Vice-President, National Nurses United: “National Nurses United (NNU), with the Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN), sent 50 registered nurses (RNs) to Puerto Rico to assist with Hurricane Maria disaster relief from October 4 to October 18, coordinating with a 300-union member relief delegation of the AFL-CIO. RN volunteers observed that, without access to power, basic medical services were down in many areas of Puerto Rico and not fully functioning in most others. An acute public health crisis has developed, including lack of refrigeration for medicine, exacerbation of respiratory illnesses, limited to no access to money or insurance for prescriptions, spread of dangerous waterborne bacterial disease, and failing generators in hospitals. Without power, people have had trouble accessing food and clean running water even if supplies are available because water treatment plants are not fully functioning and many electronic banking systems are inoperable. Lack of power created barriers for Puerto Ricans seeking FEMA aid and aid applications because aid applications and FEMA announcements rely on text, email, and web-based communications. RNs witnessed first-hand the dire conditions for Puerto Rican residents and the insufficient response from federal relief agencies in this disaster. NNU urges Congress to take the following actions immediately to prevent further erosion of public health conditions in Puerto Rico and to put the island back on a path to recovery.”

During the question and answer section of the hearing, several members asked the witness panels about the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) role in the restoration efforts.  Chairman Upton questioned to Mr. Alexander about the relationship the Corps has with PREPA. Upton stated that “How has that gone? This committee has tried to contact PREPA by email and phone, there is no heartbeat.” Mr. Alexander answered by saying that their mission is to restore the grid.  “The Corps is working in collaboration with them to have well defined areas of operations and not working in each other’s areas. We are working with PREPA, not for PREPA, and for FEMA in coordination with PREPA”, Alexander added.

Mr. Alexander continued his testimony throughout the hearing stating that the Corps was neither consulted nor aware of the Whitefish contract. When asked if he trusted PREPA, Alexander said that “I do not have any reason to not trust them. “In providing an estimated timeline for power restoration in Puerto Rico, Alexander stated that their goal is 50% by Nov. 30, 75% by Jan. 31. Alexander emphasized that the authority of the Corps stems from the Robert T. Stafford act, which only gives the Corps authority to restore the grid to its “pre-storm form.” Several members continually asked if the Corps is taking measures to rebuild the power grid in a more resilient manner, to which Alexander stated that they are not and that is under the Department of Energy’s authority.

During the hearing, the member’s had several questions that none of the witnesses could answer because there was not anyone representing FEMA. When Alexander was asked who was in charge of the situation in Puerto Rico, he answered: “FEMA.”

The Department of Energy is looking into long-term improvements to the grid; however any actual financing goes to the local utilities and the government of Puerto Rico.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), after questioning the panel stated: “We all know the history behind PREPA, bankruptcy, and their questionable practices.” Throughout the hearing, PREPA’s handling of the situation was heavily criticized. Rep. Michael Doyle (D-PA) stated: “The idea that our citizens are going to go 3 more months without electricity is unconscionable.”

Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) said that, “Congress has an overarching responsibility to protect the tax payer from future losses by building a more resilient, modern, distributive grid with better technology.” Hoffman stated that “there needs to be an ability to work closely with PREPA to discuss what opportunities are available to modernize and rebuild the grid.”

When addressing the death count in Puerto Rico, Ms. Kennedy stated that in her opinion the number of deaths would be on the higher side of 59 that the government says. In addition, Mr. Nieves says that the number of deaths around 59 deaths is misleading. “Death toll in my view is in the hundreds”, he added, “People are dying today, not because of Hurricane Maria, but Hurricane PREPA.”

“I would call that criminal negligence”, added Rep. Shimkus when referring to PREPA’s inability to go through the standard procedure to ask for help and instead awarding the Whitefish contract. Nieves stated Congress needs to mandate where the tax payer money goes, bypassing PREPA and the government of Puerto Rico. Throughout the hearing, the common denominator among the witnesses and the members was the lack of transparency that PREPA has had with the federal government, and the need to address this issue in the future.

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