Hurricanes Irma and Maria damaged Puerto Rico’s electricity grid in 2017, causing the longest blackout in U.S. history. It took roughly 11 months after the hurricanes for power to be restored to all of the customers with structures deemed safe for power restoration. Federal agencies provided about $3.9 billion to help restore electricity service, which included temporary or partial repairs.
Now that electricity service has been restored, local entities face the longer-term and more expensive task of grid recovery to more fully repair and rebuild the grid. Federal programs provide opportunities to incorporate resilience into disaster recovery efforts and the federal government has appropriated billions in funding to support electricity grid recovery in Puerto Rico. However, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review has found that as of July 2019, federal agencies have not funded grid recovery projects in Puerto Rico.
Federal agencies can support long-term electricity grid recovery efforts in Puerto Rico by providing funding and technical assistance and coordinating among local and federal agencies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are the primary federal funding sources for grid recovery. The Department of Energy (DOE) can provide technical assistance to local and federal entities to support grid recovery efforts. The role of coordinating federal efforts falls at FEMA’s door.
GAO reported on October 8 that neither FEMA nor HUD had funded long-term grid recovery projects in Puerto Rico, but DOE had provided technical assistance. It noted that “progress on grid recovery efforts has been hindered in part because FEMA has not provided clear written information on what will be eligible for funding”. For example, FEMA has new authorities to fund projects that enhance resilience and restore grid infrastructure to the latest industry standards, but has not defined resilience or specified what standards it will accept. Consequently, it is unclear which technologies and approaches are eligible for funding.
According to FEMA, developing a policy to implement its new authorities created challenges for establishing clear guidance but FEMA officials believed they had reached an understanding with local entities through discussions and trainings. However, GAO says that without clarification from FEMA, local entities do not have sufficient information to implement plans and risk spending resources developing projects that may not be eligible for funding.
The need for coordination among the numerous entities involved in grid recovery in Puerto Rico poses its own challenges, according to local and federal officials who were interviewed as part of the GAO review. FEMA should lead the coordination of federal support for local agencies to achieve recovery goals, but according to GAO’s report, it has not established a mechanism that is working to facilitate coordination among the numerous entities involved in grid recovery. FEMA maintains that coordination across federal leadership is occurring and agencies communicate directly with local entities. However, these efforts do not involve all federal and local entities and, given the unique situation, without a mechanism to enhance coordination among these entities, coordination challenges may continue to hinder progress.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with GAO’s recommendation that FEMA develop and provide clear written information that clarifies how it will implement new authorities for the electricity grid in Puerto Rico. DHS stated that FEMA plans to update existing guidance to provide clarification and additional guidance for implementing authorities. However, DHS stated that FEMA will not define resilience as part of these updates.
DHS also agreed with GAO that FEMA establish a mechanism for coordination among the multiple local and federal entities involved in grid recovery that facilitates decision-making and information sharing among local and federal agencies.
GAO has also recommended that FEMA, in coordination with DOE, should establish an interagency agreement to define roles and responsibilities to clarify how FEMA will consult with DOE in grid recovery planning, implementation, and decision-making. DOE and FEMA are already in the process of preparing an interagency agreement to clarify how FEMA will leverage DOE expertise in grid recovery planning, implementation, and decision-making going forward.