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Why Puerto Rico Can’t Get the Lights Back On

The NYT has a surprisingly good article on the failure of Puerto Rico to get its electricity grid back in order after Hurricane Maria. The article tries mightily to lay some blame on the Trump administration’s door, but when the reader digs into the meat of the article, it becomes clear the majority of the problems are with the territorial government and the state owned electric company, PREPA:

After Maria and the hurricane that preceded it, called Irma, Puerto Rico all but slipped from the modern era. Even now, while officials say the $2.5 billion reconstruction effort has restored power to 98 percent of the grid’s customers, swaths of hilly country across the island are still pitch black after dark, punctuated by lights run on private generators. (About 60 percent of Yabucoa’s residents had power as of May 1.) Even restored sections of the grid are nightmarishly unreliable, as evidenced by last month’s outage, the second major power failure in a week and the fourth since early February.

When the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as Prepa, hired Whitefish for the reconstruction, it also declined to request direct assistance from mainland utilities that for decades had routinely dispatched workers to help one another recover from disasters large and small.

Compounding those problems, the grid was decrepit, corroded and poorly maintained, and Prepa — which, like Puerto Rico as a whole, is effectively bankrupt — had failed to keep sufficient stocks of replacement parts and other critical supplies. Shipments of parts from the mainland were slow to arrive and languished in the battered ports. The terrain is so forbidding that replacing a single power pole can require a helicopter and a team of line workers. The effort seemed to go impossibly awry.

“I’ve never seen anything like that — not in a developed nation,” said Ed Muller, a former energy executive whose generation and transmission equipment suffered flooding by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, severe storm damage in Jamaica and earthquakes in California. In the Caribbean, he said, “hurricanes come through regularly, and have forever. You move people in and you get it done. And we haven’t done it.”

It took more than a month for Prepa’s decision on aid from utilities, known as mutual assistance, to be undone. In late October, with the reconstruction seemingly stalled, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico met with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a veteran of Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters. Mr. Cuomo strongly recommended invoking mutual aid.

The sense of spinning in place was summed up by the experience of 20 workers from Lakeland, Fla., hired as subcontractors by Whitefish. The workers arrived expecting to pick up their trucks, which had left Florida 10 days earlier. “Every morning I waited for the call to pick up the trucks,” Charlie Russell, the Lakeland Electric supervisor on the ground, wrote to his bosses.

He waited and waited. Puerto Rico’s damaged ports, shut down after the storm, were now jammed with a backlog of containers.

Mr. Russell asked at his hotel for the location of Prepa’s offices, where he might get some answers. He set out on foot with a Spanish-speaking co-worker to a district office two miles away. They found it, but security guards would not let them in. They tried again the next day. Eventually he found a Prepa supervisor, but he had no tasks for the men.

In the end, Lakeland Electric was in Puerto Rico for 22 days. The crew did repair work for two and a half. The bill, which taxpayers will probably foot: $820,271.25.

There’s a lot more to read in the article; I strongly recommend people click through and read. Particularly striking was that it required an intervention by New York’s governor Cuomo to finally get Rosello to request mutual aid from the mainland US, and even then as the story above illustrates, outside contractors have been prevented from doing their jobs by a hostile PREPA and a hostile Puerto Rican government.

Another striking factoid in the article was that the Puerto Rican power grid had been on the decline since 1968. The local politicians quickly turned PREPA into a patronage machine, which has increasingly made it difficult to accomplish the core mission. PREPA was completely unprepared for Hurricane Maria, the employees had no supplies on hand and what supplies they did get were stolen. The utility was also completely bankrupt as well.

Here’s a typical example from the NYT article of PREPA’s work quality:

“Prepa was trying to manage the overall restoration process,” Mr. Miller said, but “they would work on a line and not finish it.” The authority, he added, “had the appearance of not knowing what was going on, but jumping from point to point and putting out spot fires, so to speak.”

Later in the article, it also talks about how local mayors have been paying for repairs and supplies out of their own budgets and just ignoring the power company to try to fix things themselves. This also jives with reporting from other publications that mayors were doing the work themselves to get around high-level corruption,

This is why the Trump administration should not be blamed for the current state of affairs – this is a situation which has been allowed to grow through neglect from DC and incompetence and corruption in Puerto Rico. It will take decades to fix. It can’t be turned around overnight.

Given the above issues, it’s no surprise the US government doesn’t want to give the Puerto Ricans more money or statehood. The only thing I don’t understand is the weird reluctance of the Trump administration to criticize the Puerto Rican government; it’s making it way too easy for the liberals to blame the storm on Trump. Change is not going to be possible if people don’t understand just how bad things are in Puerto Rico.

In the end, the reconstruction problems have been caused by a Puerto Rican government which seems to be both incompetent and corrupt. The story of the outside contractors who could not get to work because of bureaucratic roadblocks was indicative of a sclerotic political establishment which was both lazy and not really interested in doing its job. There was clearly an expectation and belief that they should be able to do nothing and that Washington should just come in and fix everything (and also bribe Puerto Rican officials for the privilege of fixing things).

Unfortunately, I don’t see any change coming to Puerto Rico unless Washington removes the existing Puerto Rican government and forces direct rule.

 
Doomberg

Written by Doomberg

I am Doomberg, one of the original founding members of Sparta Report, and have been here since the beginning. I am an insatiable news junkie and enjoy reading and writing about the US territories, the Caribbean, video games, smartphones, and of course conservative politics in general.

I also really like pictures of gas stations and claim full responsibility for the silly gas station motif. I'm presently trapped behind enemy lines in a blue state with no hope of escape! The ride never ends.

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