- The head of the federal agency in charge of power restoration in Puerto Rico told House Energy and Commerce Committee lawmakers Thursday morning he has not spoken with anyone from the island's public utility on the ground in the U.S. territory.
- Ret. Gen. Ray Alexander, director of contingency coordination for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told the energy subcommittee members he has personally not spoken with any employees of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) in the territory today. Other members of the USACE restoration team, he later clarified, "collaborate with PREPA every day."
- The USACE and its contractors have completed nearly 400 installations of temporary power generators in Puerto Rico and 140 in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Alexander said, with more pre-installation inspections underway. USACE is coordinating the immediate power restoration needs, while the Department of Energy will oversee longer-term rebuilding of the island's devastated grid.
While about 70% of Puerto Rico remains without power, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said they only response they've gotten from PREPA is radio silence.
"This subcommittee has tried to contact PREPA by email and by phone," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chair of the full E&C Committee. "They're not answering. There's no heartbeat that we're getting back."
"We have a task force ... that's overseeing our mission to restore the grid assigned by FEMA," Alexander responded. "What we're doing with PREPA is we're working in coordination and collaboration with them so we can have well defined, focused areas of operation, so we're not working in each others' area."
"We are fully working with PREPA," Alexander added. "We are not working for PREPA. We are working for [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] in coordination with PREPA."
Later testimony, however, raised questions about the extent of that coordination.
"Have you ever talked to someone on the ground at PREPA?" asked Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), vice chair of the energy subcommittee "Have you yourself talked to someone on the ground?"
"No, sir, I have not," Alexander answered.
The USACE director later clarified his comments in response to questioning from Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), who asked who Congress can "call and yell at someone to get the job done."
"FEMA," Alexander answered, after prodding from Shimkus. "That is the authority we are operating under."
"And I will say this," Alexander added: "From our chief of engineers to our South Atlantic Division commanding general to a number of colonels that are on the ground in Puerto Rico, they collaborate and meet with PREPA on a daily basis."
Alexander's comments come amid rising scrutiny for the USACE and its role in power restoration. Yesterday, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló criticized the Army Corps. in an MSNBC interview, saying that their inability to quickly restore power led PREPA to sign a controversial $300 million contract with Whitefish energy, which is now slated for cancellation.
"On Sept. 30, I signed an agreement ... with the Corps of Engineers under the direct statement that they would start immediately, that they would lift the energy grid in 45 days," he said. "However, the reality is, 35 days later, the Corps of Engineers has not started the work."
Alexander did not mention those comments directly, but he did highlight the work of USACE and its contractors on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"As of October 31, 2017, the Corps and its contractors have completed 740 of 827 requested pre-installation inspections (for temporary generators) and 392 generator installations in Puerto Rico," Alexander wrote in submitted testimony. "The Corps and its contractors have completed 249 of 277 pre-installation inspections (for temporary generators) and 140 general installations in the U.S. Virgin Islands."
USACE will continue coordinating immediate power restoration on the island while the Department of Energy will oversee the longer-term rebuild of the PREPA grid, nearly all of which was destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Maria. Already, some in Puerto Rico are floating business model reforms for PREPA, including privatizing part or all of the utility, and House lawmakers said they would look to support those discussions.
"From privatization [of PREPA] to the creation of a new federal power marketing administration, all these things have to be up for discussion," said. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), ranking member of the subcommittee, "and whatever road we go down must have buy-in from the Puerto Rican people and government."