Guayanilla - The Puerto Rican government is once again at the mercy of the Donald Trump administration's approval of federal funds to address the emergency situation triggered by Tuesday's earthquake and its many aftershocks.
Both Governor Wanda Vázquez and Washington Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González yesterday pinned their hopes on Trump - who has strongly criticized the island's politicians - to approve a major disaster declaration for Puerto Rico.
Florida State Senator Rick Scott joined Vázquez and González's optimism. He visited the island yesterday and promised to do everything he can “to make sure that all the resources that can be available will be available.”
On the other hand, NMEAD Commissioner Carlos Acevedo said 4,184 people remain in shelters after the earthquakes - most of them, outdoors - and that the number of houses and other damaged structures would be confirmed today, when the official assessment is expected to be completed.
As for damage estimates, Acevedo said the initial estimate of $10 million was far smaller. "We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars because there are homes that were a total loss and other structures that will have to be demolished," he said.
The disaster declaration would be submitted tomorrow
The major disaster declaration, which the governor hopes to submit to the White House tomorrow, would, among other things, allow citizens affected by the earthquakes to receive individual assistance.
The problem, Vázquez, González, and Scott admitted, is that even if Trump signs the declaration, funds would not be released immediately. They said that the state government, and therefore the people, are still waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), among other agencies, to disburse Hurricane María relief funds.
"Thanks to Sen. Scott, I just had a call with President Donald Trump personally, who has expressed his support for Puerto Rico and we have expressed the support of our people for his swift action, not only regarding the initial declaration but also the one we are going to request," the governor said, after visiting the Costa Sur power plant in Guayanilla, one of the most damaged power plants in Puerto Rico after Thursday's earthquake. The governor also visited Ponce and Guanica.
The initial emergency declaration Vázquez referred to was signed by Trump on Tuesday night and allows the federal government to provide the state government aid aimed at saving lives, protecting them, and ensure public safety. Senators Scott and Marco Rubio, also from Florida, asked the U.S. President to act.
Regarding the phone call, the White House issued a written statement outlining that President Trump will continue to monitor and receive updates on the situation and that he appreciates the collaboration with Governor Vazquez and her team
After visiting the Costa Sur power plant, José Ortiz, executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), said that up to yesterday at 5:00 p.m., 83 percent of the 1.5 million customers of the public corporation had power after the widespread blackout caused the earthquake. He anticipated that service to the remaining 17 percent would be restored no later than Monday.
On the other hand, González said that the central government and municipalities are working together on the damage assessment following the earthquake and its aftershocks. This assessment will support the declaration of a major disaster.
"The visits to Guánica, Ponce and Costa Sur are to learn about the needs and what the federal government needs to speed up. Those resources we need from FEMA and the other agencies are in place. We are conducting the damage assessment in the different areas so they can submit the major disaster declaration," she said.
"We are checking schools, the plant, and public facilities throughout the island to see what the damage is. The major disaster declaration includes a section for individual assistance, and that can only be requested it if you know what the damages are and how many people have been affected," she added, urging municipalities not to underestimate the impact of the earthquakes.
Scott, meanwhile, stressed that he asked Trump to do everything possible to help the families of Puerto Rico, and added that he also had conversations with FEMA, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, and the federal Department of Transportation.
"We don't know how much help is needed (to address the emergency triggered by the earthquake)", he said. Scott added that they have Hurricane María funds and they are working to make sure that that money gets to Puerto Rico. "Some of that money can be used to restore the power grid,"he said.
According to Scott, FEMA and HUD cover different things according to the damage reports they have, and that is what they are working on now. He also said that while he was governor of Florida, he had to deal with the bureaucracy of federal agencies during the emergencies caused by four hurricanes. "The frustration for everyone is that they are slow processes," he said.
On the other hand, Puerto Rican Representative Darren Soto arrived on the island last night to see first hand the damage caused by the earthquake and its aftershocks. Soto was one of 56 lawmakers who sent Trump a letter yesterday asking him to sign the major disaster declaration as soon as the governor formally requests it.
Renting power generation
Meanwhile, PREPA executive director warned that the power grid will run out of reserve generation once 100 percent of the customers have their service restored.
Therefore, the power grid will be more vulnerable to blackouts. PREPA uses the reserve - in megawatts - to respond to failures or when a unit goes out of operation for maintenance.
"We are replacing this plant (Costa Sur) with other units that were used as a back-up. Now, these units are operating 24/7," said Ortiz.
He added that "what we agreed with FEMA and Senator Scott" was that, once the major disaster declaration is issued, between 500 and 800 megawatts will be installed to replace the Costa Sur plant production. "It will be rented equipment, generators that can be placed anywhere in Puerto Rico because the system is interconnected. We must do it because we don't have enough backup," the official said.
He also indicated that they are working on an "in-depth assessment" of the damage in the Costa Sur power plant to determine how long it will take to repair and restore the service.
Yesterday, in a briefing, Ken Buell, director of Emergency Response and Recovery at the U.S. Department of Energy, said that to put the Palo Seco plant into operation after the damage suffered in Costa Sur, they will need a waiver from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the emissions from that facility.
Meanwhile, Gavin Hayes, of the U.S. Geological Survey, said that a 6.4 magnitude earthquake, like the one that rattled Puerto Rico last Tuesday, causes damages of about $100 million. However, he acknowledged that this estimate does not include specific events on the island, such as the damage to the South Coast.
Tent Cities are almost ready
On the other hand, José Reyes, Adjutant General of the National Guard, said that between today andtomorrow tent cities must be installed in several municipalities in the southern area for the people affected by the earthquakes.
He said a contractor hired by NMEAD and FEMA began installing the tent cities yesterday in Yauco.
According to Reyes, the National Guard submitted a plan to establish tent cities with a capacity of 1,500 people in Ponce, Peñuelas, Guayanilla, Guánica, and Yauco, which are the most affected municipalities.
"Guánica and Yauco are our priority," Reyes said. "Then we will go to Peñuelas, Guayanilla, and Ponce."
These camps, he said, will have portable kitchens, medical services, security and different state and federal aid agencies representatives.
Meanwhile, the governor said she had slept under the awning of Guánica mayor´s house, Santos Seda, the night before. "We were sleeping without water and power, in the same conditions that people are suffering. It's not the same to say it as to suffer it, and to feel it in the same way as all those residents do," said Vázquez, who called the aftershocks "horrible."
Reporters José A. Delgado, Amanda Pérez Pintado and Keila López Alicea collaborated with this story.