(AP, Michael Weissenstein and Danica Coto, 19.Jul.2018) – Ten months after Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s electric grid, the local agency responsible for rebuilding it is in chaos and more than $1 billion in federal funds meant to strengthen the rickety system has gone unspent, according to contractors and U.S. officials who are anxious to make progress before the next hurricane.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has seen two chief executive officers and four board members resign in less than a week in a messy fight over how much the bankrupt agency should pay its CEO. The agency’s fourth CEO since the hurricane lasted less than 24 hours on the job last week before resigning amid public outrage over his $750,000 salary.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello on Wednesday named the former head of Puerto Rico’s water and sewer agency as the fifth head of the electric company since Maria, at a salary of $250,000 a year. Jose Ortiz starts work Monday.
“In spite of missteps in the past, everybody will see that we have the right person at the right time,” Rossello said.
The turmoil has fueled delays in launching $1.4 billion worth of work that includes replacing creaky wooden power poles vulnerable to collapse in the next storm, the chief federal official in charge of rebuilding Puerto Rico said.
“There is no permanent work that’s been done,” said Mike Byrne, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s assistant administrator for field operations. “What I’m worried about is the next level, the permanent work, the going in and building the grid the way I’ve been tasked to do by Congress.”
From shut-down medical equipment to the spread of waterborne diseases, the cascading effects of power grid failure likely led to hundreds of deaths in the aftermath of the Category 4 hurricane, although the exact number remains a subject of debate and ongoing investigation.
“The one reason why so many people died in the aftermath of the hurricane was the lack of energy,” opposition Sen. Eduardo Bhatia said. “And the lack of energy comes from how fragile the system was because of years of neglect.”
Several hundred Puerto Ricans remained without power Thursday in the longest-running blackout in U.S. history. The entire island remains vulnerable because much of the massive damage from the storm was resolved with temporary fixes likely to fail in the next hurricane.
These include thousands of weakened and damaged poles and power lines that were reused in the absence of new supplies. In some cases, lines were bolted to trees.
The Puerto Rico power authority notified three large mainland U.S. companies in March that they had been selected to carry out $1.4 billion worth of contracts that includes finishing emergency restoration work and beginning the long-term task of overhauling the power grid. Nearly four months later, the agency has not issued the final orders required to send the linemen into the field to do the permanent work, according to federal officials and some contractors. The power authority has not explained why, and a spokesman did not return repeated calls for comment.