After Hurricane Harvey slammed into the coast of Texas, thousands of electrical workers from other states rushed in to repair power lines and get the lights back on. Ditto in Florida after Hurricane Irma. But after Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, there were just a few hundred outside workers, which goes a long way toward explaining why, more than a month after Maria made landfall on the U.S. territory, roughly 8 out of 10 residents are still without power.
“We need trucks, we need poles, we need crews, we need lines, we need more people,” a lineman for Puerto Rico’s troubled power authority told the New York Times in a report that detailed the poor planning and dubious decision-making that have marked the local and federal response to the storm. While President Donald Trump gave the recovery effort high marks -“I would give myself a 10” out of 10, he said last week- residents endured another week of life without power. No electricity means nights spent in darkness, no way to make calls, and long lines to get ice and water and cash and gas. Hospitals and other crucial facilities have to rely on generators. “It’s like going back in time,” said one resident.
The sorry, preexisting state of Puerto Rico’s power system - an outside consultant last year judged the power lines to be “cracking, corroding, and collapsing” - clearly accounts for some of the delay. But that doesn’t excuse the bad planning and questionable decisions that have marked the response to a calamity that was so clearly anticipated. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the debt-ridden utility responsible for the deterioration of the power grid, made the troubling decision to not activate the mutual-aid network that utilities typically use to get extra help after major service disruptions. Instead, it opted to hire a small Montana-based company with limited experience to oversee the work. Giving a no-bid $300 million contract to a company that had just two full-time employees on the day Maria struck is, at best, curious and deserving of more scrutiny.
The House Natural Resources Committee plans to examine the circumstances of the contract for Whitefish Energy. It also needs to assess the adequacy of efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers, charged by the Federal Emergency Management Agency with restoring Puerto Rico’s power. It is simply unacceptable that the most optimistic - critics call it doubtful - prediction for getting most of the lights back on is by mid-December.
The people of Puerto Rico have proven to be enormously resilient in enduring the daily hardships of not having power or enough food and water. Neighbors have looked out and helped each other. Also stepping in have been charities and good Samaritans, some of whom have proven to be far more capable then the players of officialdom. Isn’t it time for government to get its act together?