Investigating Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority

Six months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of residents are still without power. They can’t store perishable food, cook, cool or heat their homes, or use modern comforts most of us can take for granted.

Many businesses including hospitals, continue to rely on generators because electricity is too unreliable, even when PREPA has restored power.

Recently, both the governor and members of Congress have taken the Treasury to task for delays in providing funds for disaster relief to Puerto Rico. Now, another problem is taking center stage.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has been supporting Puerto Rico throughout the recovery attempts, joined Senators Bernie Sanders, Richard Blumenthal, Edward Markey, and Catherine Cortez Masto in a letter to FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, asking for a “update on federal efforts to restore the electric grid in Puerto Rico.”

The letter acknowledges the work being done by the two organizations, listing the 1,300,000 PREPA customers already receiving service, the focus on rebuilding the Island’s power distribution networks, and the temporary generators being built. The authors go on to point out that rural areas are still without power, with serious consequences to health and well-being, and that urban areas have also complained about the slow response and the areas still without power. Half the intersections in Puerto Rico, for example, still do not have traffic lights. Only 71% of PREPA’s power transmission stations are operational. And the people working on the problem are beginning to leave Puerto Rico.

The letter requests answers to specific questions about the restoration efforts and what might be well called the failure to complete the restoration process.

  • How do FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, and other federal agencies plan to meet their commitment to have power restored to 95% of the population by March 31st?
  • How do they plan to restore power to the people living in rural and mountainous areas?

For both of these questions, the letter asks for specific details about the workers and materials needed. The list of questions continues:

  • What are the specific details of all contractors hired to help with the restoration of electric power?
  • Given that federal sources say that a lack of materials is the main cause of slow progress, what are the specific issues already encountered, and what solutions are proposed?
  • Does FEMA intend to extend the involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers past the March 31 deadline?
  • How is the working relationship among FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, PREPA, and the government of Puerto Rico?
  • What challenges have been caused by PREPA’s ongoing financial problems?
  • How reliable are the parts of the electrical system which have already been restored?
  • Will the electrical grid be ready to withstand the 2018 hurricane season?

The letter gives FEMA and the Corps of Engineers until March 28 to prepare an answer and until March 30 to arrange a staff briefing on their response.

Read the letter.

A letter from the House Committee on Natural Resources to PREPA takes a different approach. Rob Bishop, Chair of the Committee, and colleagues Doug LaMAlfa and Bruce Westerman, wrote directly to PREPA’s Interim Executive Director, Justo Gonzalez, asking about “corruption and gross mismanagement” within PREPA.

Some of the examples given in the letter:

  • Warehouse 5, where armed federal agents found materials for restoration which were not distributed to the crews doing the work.
  • Claims that as much as 50% of worker time was lost because materials were unavailable.
  • Reports that PREPA official accepted thousands of dollars in bribes to restore power to “exotic dance clubs” before other locations which had been scheduled as higher priority.
  • Claims that PREPA officials restored power to their own homes ahead of the airport and Rio Piedras Medical Center.

The authors asked for information on all investigations being made into accusations of corruption, favoritism, or abuse of power by PREPA officials. They also asked for all documents relating to the Warehouse 5 situation, including the Puerto Rico Department of Justice investigation.

PREPA is also required to clarify and submit documents detailing their procedures for distributing materials and for responding to accusations of mismanagement or corruption.

Read the letter.

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