Puerto Rico governor knocks U.S. Army Corps response after hurricane

NEW YORK,  (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello criticized the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in returning electricity to the island, saying he was “unsatisfied” with the agency for a lack of urgency he believes has delayed the process.

The Army Corps was tasked with overseeing power repairs in Puerto Rico about a week after the U.S. territory was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

Speaking to Reuters in New York before a meeting with Governor Andrew Cuomo, Rossello deflected to the Army Corps some of the criticism that has been heaped on his administration since Maria made landfall on Sept. 20.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello

Rossello and the island’s power authority, PREPA, were criticized for declining to pursue so-called mutual aid from other U.S. public power utilities after the storm knocked out electricity to all of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents.

That decision has become a focal point because it partly spurred PREPA to sign a no-bid contract with tiny private firm Whitefish Energy Holdings – a deal Rossello canceled on Sunday after an uproar over its provisions.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s oversight of that contract, along with another deal PREPA signed with Cobra, a unit of Mammoth Energy Services, is being investigated by the U.S. House of Representatives energy committee.

PREPA only formally asked for mutual aid from utilities in New York and Florida this week.

The initial decision to forgo it, Rossello said, was based on concerns about the bankrupt island’s ability to afford the costs of utility workers. The Army Corps, though, said it could help restore power to Puerto Rico within 45 days, with no down payment from the island, Rossello said.

But “we are very unsatisfied” with the Army Corps, he added. “Everything that has been done right now has been done by PREPA or the subcontractors PREPA has had.”

Six weeks after the storm, only about 30 percent of Puerto Rico’s grid has been restored.

“Based on the lack of urgency, we have asked for mutual aid programs to be executed quickly,” Rossello said. “We have asked that the Corps of Engineers ramp up the plan to bring people over here.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state would send 350 utility workers and 220 vehicles. He did not say how the resources would be funded.

The Army Corps – a division of the U.S. armed forces, made up of soldiers and civilians who provide engineering services around the world – said it had rolled out contracts quickly.

At a press conference in Puerto Rico yesterday, Jose Sanchez, director of contingency operations of the Army Corps, said the agency had awarded contracts that usually take weeks to months in just seven to 10 days.

Despite his concerns, Rossello said PREPA and the Army Corps would continue to lead power restoration on the island.

Speaking in a press conference with Rossello in New York later in the day, Cuomo was also critical of the federal response to Maria.

“I’ve never seen these levels of bureaucracy, and the result is intolerable,” he said, adding that New Yorkers “burned me an effigy” over just a few days without power after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

A White House official told Reuters late yesterday that the federal government had agreed to expand the use of disaster aid to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid and other infrastructure, and would pick up 90 percent of the cost – up from the typical share of 75 percent.

Rossello also escalated a war of words with the federal board in charge of managing Puerto Rico’s finances, telling Reuters the board overstepped its authority in appointing an outside manager at PREPA.

Puerto Rico is in bankruptcy, struggling with $72 billion in debt. Its finances were put under federal control last year.

The oversight board last week said it would appoint retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Noel Zamot as PREPA’s chief transformation officer, in charge of leading hurricane cleanup. Rossello has vowed to challenge the action in court.

“Administering Puerto Rico is not one of the board’s roles, and it would be the epitome of colonialism if that should happen,” he told Reuters.

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