A darkened street in Yauco, Puerto Rico, earlier this month. Credit Mario Tama/Getty Images
Amid the slow-motion agonies of Puerto Rico, it is heartening to see the reopening of some schools — though fewer than one in 10 — signaling the local resolve to prevail over Hurricane Maria’s devastation more than a month ago. Comparable resolve, however, and a far greater sense of urgency are needed from the federal government if the crippled island is ever to have a decent chance at recovery.
The key — restoring electrical power to the island’s 3.4 million American citizens — remains a frustrating and mysterious process, with 75 percent of the island still without electricity. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s vow to have 95 percent restoration by mid-December was quickly dismissed as unrealistic by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is working to rebuild the island’s flattened power grid.
Confidence has not been helped by the news that a two-person, two-year-old Montana electrical company with limited experience was able to land a $300 million contract for a part of the task that is far larger than any project the company has ever done. The contract is stirring suspicions of inside favoritism, prompting the financial oversight board that manages Puerto Rican affairs to consider appointment of a special monitor over the island’s power authority.
A congressional inquiry is being promised as lawmakers look into the fact that the company, Whitefish Energy, is from the same Montana town as the secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, and that its chief executive knows Mr. Zinke. Both the secretary’s office and the Whitefish executive, Andy Techmanski, say this is a hometown coincidence; they deny that there was inside help in winning approval from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. “We just answered the call,” Mr. Techmanski said of the hurried deal. The company claims it now has more than 300 utility subcontractors in Puerto Rico, with more arriving daily.
The power authority, which is facing deep financial problems of its own, says Whitefish won by claiming experience in working in difficult mountainous terrain and also by not asking for money up front, as another company did. But an overriding question is why the power authority did not use the industry’s “mutual aid” agreements to rush in thousands of emergency workers from other utilities, as Texas and Florida did after recent hurricanes. Industry groups say they offered to go but never heard from the island power authority.
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“The size and unknown details of this contract raises numerous questions,” said a spokesman for the House Committee on Natural Resources in promising oversight. The committee should be looking well beyond this issue to widespread problems, including the continuing scarcity of potable water in some areas, the reliability of other emergency contract deals and the mounting frustrations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It is no comfort to islanders that residents in storm-ravaged communities in Texas and Florida are still complaining of long delays in getting basic federal assistance after hurricanes that occurred weeks before Maria swept Puerto Rico. Residents who over all had far less of a power problem than those on the island say it continues to take hours to reach FEMA by phone, weeks to get needed damage inspections and too long to get promised payments and paperwork.
The aftermath of these deadly hurricanes poses the basic question of whether the government’s existing emergency response system is up to the heightened challenges of nature as climate change grows more threatening. The hyperbolic self-congratulations of President Trump only invite the federal government to look away from the continuing sufferings of Puerto Rico.
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