Local law enforcement help remove debris Sept. 11, 2017, left by Category 5 storm Hurricane Irma in Culebra, Puerto Rico. (FEMA/K.C. Wilsey)

‘Difficult Last Mile’ Trying to Get Puerto Rico’s Power on Before Mission Deadline

With the deadline looming next month to have Puerto Rico’s power back up, officials told Congress this week that federal repair assistance is trying to get through that “difficult last mile” but lawmakers shouldn’t expect an “end state” finished, revamped electrical grid at this point.

On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm, knocking out power to a million residents. Fourteen days later, Hurricane Maria pummeled the already battered island with 150-mile-per-hour winds and 25 inches of rain. In the chaos, 1.47 million customers lost power.

More than 50,000 residents still lack power today.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) relied on contractors to restore the grid, and after the governor of Puerto Rico requested federal assistance in late September FEMA tasked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with restoring the island’s power.

“Rebuilding an electric grid is not a mission typically undertaken by the agency, yet the Army Corps has used its expertise to spearhead rebuilding efforts by hiring contractors and providing logistics support,” noted House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Greg Harper (R-Miss.). “On Oct. 31, 2017, PREPA finally requested mutual assistance but, lacking existing assistance agreements, crews did not arrive until early earlier this year.”

The Army Corps of Engineers’ mission to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid ends May 18.

“As of last week, power had been restored for 96.6 percent of customers. The remaining work to be done, sometimes referred to as the last mile, is the difficult mountainous region, often requiring the use of a helicopter to access work sites,” said Harper, adding that “the tragic circumstance in Puerto Rico provides us with an opportunity to build an electrical grid that is more reliable and able to withstand future storms.”

Ranking Member Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) doubted that the mission was going to render the island able to withstand the next big storm.

“It appears to me that there’s little effort being made to modernize the grid or otherwise increase its resilience as part of the restoration process that has been completed to date,” she said. “FEMA’s federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico actually described the restoration efforts as a ‘band-aid’ and said that the system has ‘been patched back together,’ and that was sort of my impression when I was in Puerto Rico.”

DeGette added that “even where power has been restored, service remains unreliable, and blackouts and service outages continue to affect hundreds of thousands of people.”

“Businesses and facilities like hospitals, police stations and water treatment facilities have generators on hand simply to ensure that if the grid goes out that they can continue to provide services,” she said.

Jeff Byard, associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery at FEMA, told the committee that PREPA and the Virgin Islands Water & Power Authority “are ultimately responsible for the permanent repair of power generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure.”

“However, FEMA and our federal partners, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Energy, are closely working to assist in those efforts,” he said.

“In Puerto Rico, the governor elected to use Section 428 of the Stafford Act, which is the public assistance alternative procedures, to allow applicants to request and obtain funding based on certified cost estimates. As the administrator announced this morning, FEMA and the Commonwealth have coordinated on the guidelines for the permanent work. The goals of Section 428 are to increase flexibility in the administration of assistance, expedite the delivery of assistance and provide financial incentives for timely and cost-effective completion of public assistance projects.”

Byard said that “once FEMA and the applicant agree on the damage assessment, scope of work and estimated costs, a public assistance grant can’t be obligated.” Under the spending bill passed in February, FEMA is given authority to provide funding in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to rebuild damaged infrastructure “without regard to its pre-disaster condition and to fund replacement of components that were not damaged, but necessary to upgrade the system to industry standards.”

“These new authorities allow FEMA to help Puerto Rico build more resilient infrastructure that will better withstand future storms,” he said. “The road to recovery will be a long one but FEMA will continue to work with the Commonwealth and territorial partners, as well as Congress, throughout the recovery process. We will be in the impacted communities for as long as we are needed.”

Charles Alexander, Jr., director of Contingency Operations and Homeland Security Headquarters at the Army Corps of Engineers, told lawmakers that the Corps has completed more than 73,000 temporary roofing installations this storm season, including 3,600 in the Virgin Islands and over 59,000 in Puerto Rico.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, he reported, “the Corps debris removal mission is 100 percent complete”; over in Puerto Rico, “debris removal is 94 percent complete.”

“We have removed over 3.9 million cubic yards of debris. We are still working on disposal and that dialog continues on what to do with it. Our debris teams are actively working in 27 municipalities, with debris removal complete in 28 municipalities. We expect to be complete with all debris removal and disposal by mid-June,” Alexander said.

The Corps will continue to operate Palo Seco and Yabucoa turbine gas generators through late May, he said, as PREPA “completes repairs to the plants at those sites.”

“Remaining materials were used to complete grid repairs and replenish depleted inventories on the island through mid-May,” Alexander said. “The Corps remains fully committed and capable of executing its other civil works activities across the nation despite our heavy involvement in these ongoing response and recovery operations.”

Harper asked Byard about the impending mission conclusion. “Why is the Army Corps’ role ending even though everyone may not have power on May 18, and who made that decision?” the chairman asked.

Byard said the the FEMA mission assigned the Corps to do the emergency power restoration and “if I may, you know, we use words like unprecedented and catastrophic, which all fits, you know, earthquakes such as Northridge, Andrew, Katrina, major storms,” but “we’ve never had to rebuild an entire state or, in this case, Commonwealth infrastructure when it relates to power. We’re rebuilding basically the entire thing, or the rebuild will be.”

“So, the emergency power mission is there to provide that temporary power. It is not the end state of what the grid will look like,” Byard stressed, adding that PREPA and the other members of the “very” Unified Command Group are not “going down different paths.”

“It’s coordinated through the Joint Field Office. We are at 95, 96 percent complete with that mission assignment. The remaining 5 percent, or 2 to 5 percent, is that difficult last mile, the mountainous terrain,” he confirmed.

“We want to transition that to PREPA because that’s a good stage in recovery,” the FEMA associate administrator said. “In any operation, regardless if it’s the Commonwealth or Texas or you pick a state, it’s better for them to start leading that recovery — you know, their recovery efforts. That doesn’t mean we’re leaving.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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