Report Says Ongoing Power Outage In Puerto Rico Is Worst Electricity Failure In U.S. History

Oct 26, 2017
Originally published on October 26, 2017 11:46 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The ongoing power outage across most of Puerto Rico is the worst electricity failure in U.S. history. That is the conclusion of a new report released today. At the same time, politicians in Puerto Rico and in Congress are questioning why the island's public power authority granted a $300 million reconstruction contract to a tiny firm in Montana. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in San Juan, and he reports the electricity problems are dominating life and politics in Puerto Rico.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In the Puerta de Tierra neighborhood of San Juan, Wilma Morales says this power outage isn't just due to a Hurricane Maria. She hasn't had power since the island was hit by hurricane Irma back in the first week of September.

WILMA MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: "I haven't had power now for 51 days," she says. But she puts the blame for the failure to restore electricity on Puerto Rico's politicians and bureaucrats who failed to maintain the system. Three quarters of the island remains without electricity more than a month after Hurricane Maria.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: She says in her opinion, the governor of Puerto Rico needs to pull his pants up and fix this situation. The failure to restore power is now the dominant issue in Puerto Rico on the streets, in people's houses, on the local radio. And fixing it isn't entirely in the governor's hands. Just yesterday, the Financial Oversight and Management Board which is appointed by Congress said it's installing a former Air Force colonel as an emergency manager for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA. The governor's office denounced the move and said the oversight board which is supervising Puerto Rico's bankruptcy can't dictate who runs the public utility.

But today, the head of PREPA, Ricardo Ramos, responded to the growing outcry in Puerto Rico over the allocation of a lucrative reconstruction contract that's been given to a tiny firm in Montana called Whitefish Energy. Radio and social media are abuzz here, questioning how such a small firm could have secured such a huge deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICARDO RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: Ramos clarified that the contract is for up to $300 million. He said Whitefish is getting paid piecemeal for each section of transmission line that it completes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: "The moment I determine that Whitefish isn't doing a good job," he says, "I can cancel the contract at any time." But for now, he says, Whitefish is doing an excellent job. The governor also praised Whitefish this week for quickly bringing in hundreds of utility crews, far more than the seven that, according to the governor, have arrived from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Adding to the political chaos, the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, yesterday questioned the Whitefish contract. In response, the company tweeted, quote, "we've got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city, and 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working" - question mark. The company quickly apologized. Ramos at PREPA today says the Whitefish tweet was inappropriate, but he stands by the work they're doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: Ramos says he welcomes any investigation into the Whitefish deal, adding that his immediate focus is on addressing the current power outage in Puerto Rico. Many here have called this outage unprecedented. Today a new study from the Rhodium Group confirmed that, saying that this is the largest blackout in U.S. history. And this blackout isn't over yet. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, San Juan.

MCEVERS: The House Natural Resources Committee has asked PREPA to provide documentation as to how it awards contracts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.