Trump silent as Puerto Rico hit with island-wide blackout

Lawmakers call on Army Corps to stay in Puerto Rico beyond current exit date.

A PUERTO RICO ELECTRIC AND POWER AUTHORITY EMPLOYEE WORKS ON RESTORING POWER TO THE ISLAND. CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
A PUERTO RICO ELECTRIC AND POWER AUTHORITY EMPLOYEE WORKS ON RESTORING POWER TO THE ISLAND. CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

As workers were getting close to fully restoring power to Puerto Rico, seven months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, the area was hit with another island-wide blackout.

The massive blackout on Wednesday came less than a week after a tree fell on a power line, knocking out power to 840,000 residents on the island. According to reports, it could take up to 24 to 36 hours to bring power back online.

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Lawmakers expressed frustration with the conditions that Puerto Ricans have been forced to live under over the past seven months. They also questioned President Trump’s unwillingness to make recovery from the hurricane a higher priority of his administration.

“Thousands still without power, scores of schools & businesses shuttered and now an island-wide blackout. We can’t be focused on a non-existent crisis on our border when Americans are suffering from a real crisis in Puerto Rico,” Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD) tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

Trump tweeted on Wednesday about James Comey being “the worst FBI director in history” but had not commented on the crisis still haunting Puerto Rico.

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“We are the wealthiest country in the world,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) tweeted Wednesday. The nation’s “full resources must be brought to fix not just this blackout, but the ongoing outages that have left hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans without power since Hurricane Maria,” he said.

Last November, Sanders released a $146 billion recovery package for both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The comprehensive bill — The Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act — offers immediate help for the island and also addresses long-term needs. The bill has received little support in the Senate.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico the morning of September 20, it knocked the island into a total blackout. Since then, Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents have been experiencing an extremely unstable power grid. The blackout has been the worst in U.S. history and the second worst in world history.

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On Wednesday, House Democrats sent a letter to FEMA Administrator Brock Long seeking an extension of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mission to restore power to Puerto Rico. The Army Corps’ work is scheduled to end on May 18. About 49,000 people are still without power.

The Democrats said the Army Corps must continue its work to restore electrical service on the island until power is fully restored. Although FEMA recently extended the Army Corps assignment to May 18, “we have received no assurance that power will be fully restored by this date,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter was signed by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, House Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-MS), and House Natural Resources Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ).

“Today’s blackout follows an incident last week when nearly 900,000 people — more than half of all power customers in Puerto Rico — lost power when a tree fell onto a primary power line, forcing the main hospital and international airport to switch to generator power,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter.

The Army Corps’ transition of full control of grid repairs to the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority will require a clear strategy developed with Puerto Rican officials, they wrote.

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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Wednesday described the latest island-wide blackout as “unacceptable.” He said his office is in touch with the Trump administration, “hoping to get to the bottom of this ASAP.”

At a House hearing last week on the status of repairs to Puerto Rico’s power grid, Charles Alexander, director of contingency operations and homeland security for the Army Corps, said his agency is doing everything possible to restore power to all residents.

Work is now occurring in some of the most rugged and hard-to-access areas in Puerto Rico, Alexander said. Crews, equipment, and supplies need to be ferried in by helicopter. But the Army Corps is committed to restoring as many customers as possible, he said.