As from tomorrow, Saturday, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) will have the task of restoring the power service for more than 20,000 families that still lack power eight months after Hurricane Maria.
This, because the administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló did not request the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for an extension to the mission entrusted to the US Corps of Engineers to restore the power grid.
The government's decision raises concerns not only among those mayors whose municipalities still lack power partially, but also to Resident Commissioner in Washington, Jenniffer González. She made the request to FEMA to extend the mission of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, but she is not authorized to do so, that request can only be made by the governor. Gonzalez said she wrote to Rosselló to act in that direction, but received no response.
"I think PREPA will need and needs the help of the Corps of Engineers and FEMA because, the more resources we have, the faster these 20,000 families will be able to have power. PREPA has not been able yet to make additional employment for the replacement of the brigades of the Corps of Engineers that left last April. What guarantees do we have that can they be made in a day? Restructuring 100 percent of the electricity service on the island has to be the priority, even knowing that the system is fragile and does not even resist a tropical depression," she said.
Gonzalez and the mayors fear that, considering the performance of the PREPA during the last eight months, the hiring processes could take some time and further delay the restoration of the power grid.
In addition, they question where the money PREPA needs to pay for the contracts will come from. PREPA not only has its finances in precarious conditions, but the 100 percent coverage of expenses for repair works expires today.
After Saturday, the government of Puerto Rico will have to pay 10 percent of the costs.
Another aggravating factor is that PREPA will take over the repairs while it is immersed in the restructuring of its debt and the government seeks to sell its assets.
The authorized representative of the governor before FEMA, Omar Marrero, requested – through a letter - an extension so that the Corps of Engineers remained on the island operating those generators that serve as backup to the system.
This way, the island would have a backup in case of blackouts such as the one of April 18.
FEMA answered in writing yesterday, and agreed to extend the rent, operation and maintenance for three mega-generators, logistics and materials for the stabilization of the power grid and temporarily leave approximately 700 generators located in several facilities.
But Marrero said they did not ask FEMA to extend its mission to restore the grid, which expires at midnight today. In addition, the request for the extension of the 100 percent expenses coverage that expires tomorrow for category B of the Public Assistance (PA) program, which would cover repairs to the network is still pending. However, he did not provide a copy of that request.
"It was not requested (the extension to the mission of the Corps of Engineers) because the chief executive of Electric Power Authority, (Walter Higgins), has said that it is not necessary, that they will be transferred to PREPA and its contractors," said Marrero recalling the recent statements of PREPA´s chief before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
There and accompanied by the president of the Board of Directors of the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA), Christian Sobrino, Higgins assured that PREPA was prepared to take the remaining part of the restoration works with its own brigades.
Sources said that there is a possible strategy to exacerbate PREPA’s complicated situation to sell its assets cheaper. In addition, they indicated that, although the leadership of the Corps of Engineers and FEMA did not like the criticism of the Rosselló administration, the federal agency was willing to grant the extension.
Marrero did not rule out making the extension request before midnight today.
"That does not seem good to me and it worries me. The expectation was that private brigades would work in our town. It did not turn out that way," said Jesús Colón Berlingeri, mayor of Orocovis , where10 percent of the residents remain in the dark.
Moreover, he was concerned because "the Authority has to make a plan now to address the situation (10 percent without power)".
He said he will meet with PREPA managers to discuss the issue on Monday.
"This was requested to PREPA with anticipation, but they wanted to see how much the Corps of Engineers could do (with the restoration work)," said the New Progressive Mayor.
"My fear is that this 10 percent will not be addressed quickly, that brigades do not arrive and that, eventually, we will be in the hurricane season again. They are people without electricity," he added.
PREPA did not answer to a request for an interview to explain how it would act in the new scenario.
The mayor of Adjuntas, Jaime Barlucea, criticized the Corps of Engineers because "they did not even light a candle," in his municipality.
In Adjuntas, 35 percent of the residents still lack power and, in some neighborhoods, such as Pellejas, there is no drinking water service due to the lack of power.
The mayor added that the service restored in his town is a product of PREPA’s work. But he resents that they have acted slowly.
"It took them a long time to arrive. Employees work, but I request more brigades," said the mayor, who fears that this slowness continues and that they live the same story from now on and that power will be fully restored within months.
The same was expressed by Rafael "Rafy" Surillo, mayor of Yabucoa where 40 percent of the population remains in the dark.
Meanwhile, Marrero said that, "certainly, those concerns (of the mayors) are genuine," but stressed that it is PREPA´s responsibility to repair the grid.
"I know they had selected companies. They were in the process of finishing the contracts," he said when El Nuevo Día asked him if PREPA had already hired private brigades to increase its capacity and finish restoring the electricity service to the whole Island.
PREPA claims that 98 percent of the island is energized. The way the public corporation handled the emergency after the hurricane raised doubts especially for not contacting immediately the American Electric Utilities Association and granting a multi-million contract to the Whitefish Company instead.
In the letter sent yesterday, FEMA stated that PREPA should submit a plan that "describes how it will deal with present and future support needs”. They indicate that this is necessary as a preparation mechanism to ensure they have the resources before to the new hurricane season that begins in about two weeks.
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