Trump Tweet Hits Sore Spot: Puerto Rico Recovery's Slow Pace

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s Thursday morning tweet that the federal government can’t help Puerto Rico forever infuriated some of the U.S. commonwealth’s political leaders. It also raised a pressing question about the island’s recovery: Why is it taking so long?

More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria, authorities reported Friday that the proportion of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents with electricity actually dropped to 9 percent from 17 percent after a plant serving San Juan failed. The lack of power has worsened a crisis where disease is spreading and a third of the population still lacks potable water.

Trump Tweet Hits Sore Spot: Puerto Rico Recovery's Slow Pace

Desperate residents have tried to tap drinking wells near hazardous-waste sites. At night, neighborhoods sit in complete darkness, and drivers set off alarms to find their cars. Some hospitals are still relying on regular shipments of diesel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fill generators and keep the lights on. 

“Thank God, we have 100 percent power right now, but we don’t know how long that will last,” said Adalisse Martinez, a spokeswoman for the San Jorge Children’s Hospital in San Juan, which is caring for 104 patients, seven in critical condition.

The slow pace of power restoration can in part be blamed on Puerto Rico’s fragile grid and the logistical challenge of getting crews and supplies to the storm-ravaged island from the mainland. Just as important, though, are bankrupt Puerto Rico’s financial woes. Its $74 billion in debt left it slow or unable to accept critical aid from U.S. states and utilities. That made it unusually dependent on federal help.

“The assistance of FEMA and also bringing in the U.S. Corps of Engineers are just indispensable to us to rebuild and recover,’’ Fernando Padilla, financial restructuring officer at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, said in an interview Thursday.

Prepa, as the utility is known, has said it couldn’t pay for assistance from mainland utilities immediately before or after Hurricane Maria. Nearly three months before the storm, Prepa declared bankruptcy following years of negotiations with creditors aimed at cutting its $9 billion of debt. Underinvestment has led to “severe degradation,” rendering transmission and generation equipment “unsafe and unreliable,’’ the authority said in a report this year.

Mutual Aid

If it had the money, the authority could have partnered with power providers in the American Public Power Association. Under a mutual-aid agreement, utilities send crews from outside a storm-damaged area. But that system -- used to deploy thousands of line workers after hurricanes hit Texas and Florida -- requires that a stricken utility cover the costs of helping.

“We did not hear from them," said Meena Dayak, a spokeswoman for the 1,400-member public power association. The group, along with other electric companies, have said they remain eager to help. But one New Jersey utility, for instance, said it would need assurances before sending assistance so its customers didn’t end up covering the cost.

In an interview Thursday, Prepa’s chief financial officer, Nelson Morales, said the agency had “been in touch with” the power association and had received help from individual utilities such as the Jacksonville, Florida, electric authority. But he said his agency had established relationships with contractors, so Prepa’s procurement office hired them to help restore power.

Those contractors included a tiny, 2-year-old Montana-based company called Whitefish Energy Holdings. While other power companies “are all afraid of the question of how are we going to get paid, Whitefish Energy was the company that actually made the leap of faith and was able to get over here," Chief Executive Officer Andy Techmanski said as he prepared to survey a downed line in San Juan.

Whitefish has sent 150 contractors and is bringing in helicopters and other equipment to restore more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) of power lines across many inaccessible areas, Techmanski said.

Prepa also turned to FEMA, which assigned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the task of leading repairs to the devastated grid. But that was eight days after Maria made landfall. Morales said part of the delay was simply because the hurricane had knocked out the entire island’s communications.

The Corps said this week it has just started bringing in contractors to restore power generation and reinstall the 80 percent of transmission lines.

Solar Challenge

Alternative energy sources have faced hurdles as well. Thousands of residents with solar panels can’t use them because they aren’t hooked up to the grid, and red tape has gotten in the way of companies like Sunnova Energy Corp. and Tesla Inc. installing batteries that can help power homes.

That has left many residents to rely on generators for electricity and to keep the water system running. Even with the federal government’s help, power and water customers are experiencing rolling blackouts.

Residents must constantly refuel generators on an island where some roads remain impassable and stoplights are out almost everywhere. Just Wednesday, a car rear-ended a diesel truck on a delivery mission to a hospital in Caguas, causing a spill that temporarily closed a thoroughfare.

The Army Corps has 388 workers coordinating with other federal agencies along with the island’s utility to bring in emergency generation units, restore power plants and reinstall power lines.

“Speed is certainly important to bring relief as quickly as possible, but we also want to do it right,’’ Army Corps Brigadier General Diana Holland said in an interview at the relief command center in San Juan. “The process is moving very quickly compared to what you would see if we were not under emergency conditions.’’

That’s little comfort to the many Puerto Ricans who are weeks if not months from regaining power. Along the streets of San Juan, snapped power lines still dangle from poles and most neighborhoods still go dark at night.

Vanesa San Emeterio, a 37-year-old graphic designer, said she has spent the past few days bringing basic supplies to friends and strangers. On one trip to Vieques, an island known for its breathtaking beaches, they found a hospital with cancer patients that had its generator stolen.

She said Hurricane Maria was a tipping point. “I’m done,” she said. She’s leaving next week for Brooklyn.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.