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

  • In US
  • 2017-11-02 18:59:38Z
  • By By Nick Brown and Jessica Resnick-Ault

By Nick Brown and Jessica Resnick-Ault

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, where he plans to discuss the need for aid 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.

Rossello and the island's power authority, PREPA, were criticized for declining to seek 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 partly on an understanding with the Army Corps that it could help restore power to Puerto Rico within 45 days. He said he was worried about bearing certain costs for utility workers that the island's bankrupt government could not afford.

But "we are very unsatisfied" with the Army Corps, Rossello said, adding that "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."

The Army Corps countered that it had rolled out contracts quickly. At a press conference in Puerto Rico on Thursday, José Sánchez, director of contingency operations of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 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.

The governor also escalated a war of words with the federal board in charge of managing Puerto Rico's finances, saying it 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.

He said he had some concerns about new parameters laid out on Tuesday by the board, which would require his administration to submit a revised draft of a fiscal turnaround plan for the island by Dec. 22.

"We are in the process of answering to the board some of our concerns with the timelines," Rossello said.

(Reporting by Nick Brown and Jessica Resnick-Ault; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Susan Thomas)


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