Puerto Rico relief has been an utter failure

Government officials keep awarding Hurricane Maria recovery contracts to companies with little experience.

A Puerto Rico electric utility employee waits for Gov. Ricardo Rossello and staff from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take a tour  of the oil-fired Palo Seco power plant on October 18, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Giusti
A Puerto Rico electric utility employee waits for Gov. Ricardo Rossello and staff from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take a tour of the oil-fired Palo Seco power plant on October 18, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Giusti

It’s been more than two months since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico — 70 days, to be exact — and government officials on the island and federal agencies in Washington still haven’t figured out how to handle the never-ending crisis.

“Either Donald Trump and his administration are unable to fulfill their responsibilities to American citizens or they simply do not care about Puerto Ricans who continue to suffer,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement this week.

Hurricane Maria demonstrated the inability — or perhaps the unwillingness — of the U.S. government to handle what should have been a relatively straightforward recovery process. As an island that faces tropical storm threats every hurricane season, contingency plans should have been in place with electric utilities and transmission companies on the mainland to restore power in a reasonable time.

But this is Puerto Rico we’re talking about — a territory whose infrastructure had been neglected ever since the United States took control of the island as part of the spoils of the Spanish-American war. Over the past 120 years, Puerto Rico has been treated as a colony, with most Americans unaware that residents of the island nation are fellow citizens.

The island’s electric grid and water infrastructure were in terrible disrepair long before Hurricane Maria struck. Puerto Ricans had no reason to assume island officials and Washington policymakers had put in place a formal process to help them after a disaster. Look at how they were treated before the storm. Upgrading and fixing the infrastructure was never a priority when the seas were calm and tourists were flocking to luxury resorts.

The neglect means that, 10 weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, almost 50 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power and at least 10 percent still do not have access to safe drinking water. Puerto Rico’s governor has pledged to restore power to 95 percent of the island’s residents by mid-December. But that’s overly optimistic, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which expects to reach just 75 percent by the end of January.

A handful of politicians in Washington are trying to make up for Puerto Rico’s second-class treatment over the past century. On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) 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.

“It makes no sense to simply put things back the way they were, which is why our bill allows the island to build back stronger,” Sanders said at a press conference Tuesday. “Puerto Rico’s antiquated electric grid was dependent on imported fossil fuels. Only 2 percent of the island’s electricity was generated by renewable energy.”

Since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, getting services restored and supplies delivered to the island has been a disorganized mess. The sheer ineptitude of government officials in Puerto Rico and in Washington has been on full display in many ways, especially considering they continue to sign contracts with entities that have little or no experience.

Puerto Rico’s government-owned electric utility, plagued by years of corruption, signed what has become the most notorious contract in the wake of the storm. Whitefish Energy, a tiny company in Montana with little experience in power restoration, was awarded $300 million contract to rebuild the island’s damaged electric grid. As part of the contract, Whitefish Energy ended up charging Puerto Rico more than double the regular wages for utility crew line workers and higher-than-normal daily meal rates.

Whitefish Energy’s chief executive has a personal relationship with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and the company’s financial backers have close ties to the Trump administration.

The energy company also struggled to get equipment to the island, leading the Puerto Rican government to hire expensive charter flights. Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló canceled the contract on October 29, but Whitefish Energy continued to work because the contract contained a clause requiring 30-days’ notice before termination.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General and the FBI office in San Juan are now conducting inquiries into the contract. The Whitefish Energy deal was also the subject of several lines of questioning in a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

Puerto Rico’s government-owned electric utility also signed a separate $200 million contract with Cobra Acquisitions LLC to support the work on the island by Whitefish Energy to restore the main lines of transmission. Cobra, a subsidiary of Oklahoma-based Mammoth Energy Services, was created earlier this year.

In a November 1 letter from House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the lawmakers sought information about Puerto Rico’s contract with Cobra Acquisitions, which was awarded on October 19 for repairing power poles and power lines coming in and out of San Juan. The contract “would appear to have the effect of preventing government oversight of the agreement” and raises “additional questions about the contracting review process,” including the exact involvement of FEMA in contracts paid out with its funds, the letter said.

In another controversial move, FEMA awarded a newly created company more than $30 million in contracts to provide emergency tarps and plastic sheeting for repairs, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. The company, Bronze Star LLC, never delivered the supplies. FEMA eventually ended the contracts, without paying any money.

In any of its previous work, Bronze Star had never won a government contract and had never delivered tarps or plastic sheeting to any customer, according to the AP. FEMA awarded the company two contracts October 10 to provide 500,000 tarps and 60,000 rolls of plastic sheeting. More than six other companies also bid on the contract, according to FEMA.

“This debacle echoes the Whitefish Energy scandal, where we still do not yet know how a two-year-old company with deep ties to Ryan Zinke and donors to Donald Trump and Rick Perry received a sweetheart $300 million contract,” the Sierra Club said in a news release Tuesday.

At the press conference introducing his recovery bill for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Sanders agreed with a reporter who noted that infrastructure woes are affecting communities across the United States. But he emphasized that the problems have been far more dire in the U.S. territories.

“We have a crisis in infrastructure here in the mainland. Our roads, our bridges, our water systems, our wastewater plants are falling apart. The problem historically has been worse in Puerto Rico and in the Virgin Islands,” Sanders said.