Official says Puerto Rico needs ‘unprecedented’ federal help
WASHINGTON (AP) — Puerto Rico has suffered such extensive devastation from Hurricane Maria that its recovery will fail unless the island gets more help from the Trump administration and Congress, the head of a federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances said Tuesday.
Natalie Jaresko, executive director of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, told Congress that the U.S. territory needs emergency and restoration funds “on an unprecedented scale” to restore housing, water and electric power.
While conditions have improved since the Sept. 20 storm, nearly 60 percent of the island is without electricity, thousands remain in shelters and tens of thousands of houses do not have roofs, Jaresko said. The installation of temporary tarps will not be completed for months, she added.
“Without unprecedented levels of help from the United States government, the recovery we were planning for will fail,” Jaresko said. The oversight board projects it will need up to $21 billion over the next two years to “ensure provision of the basic functions of government,” including police, firefighters, teachers and other public employees, Jaresko said.
Puerto Rican authorities have estimated the island suffered $45 billion to $95 billion in damage in the September storm, which virtually destroyed the island’s power grid and other infrastructure. So far, Congress has approved nearly $5 billion in aid.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he was disappointed that the head of Puerto Rico’s power authority did not testify as scheduled Tuesday. Ricardo Ramos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, had been expected to answer questions about a canceled a $300 million contract to a tiny Montana company from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown.
Whitefish Energy Holdings had just two employees when the hurricane struck, but nonetheless was selected to help rebuild the island’s electrical system. Ramos moved to cancel the contract Oct. 29 amid bipartisan criticism from members of Congress and a request by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello to void the deal.
The utility’s chairman, Ernesto Sgroi, said in a letter to the committee that Ramos was needed in Puerto Rico. “Having him off the island for the three days required to come to Washington, D.C., would undoubtedly disrupt our restoration efforts,” Sgroi said.
Bishop said it was unfortunate that Ramos “bailed” on the hearing, but promised that lawmakers will pursue questions about the Whitefish contract. The deal includes several “weird” elements, such as high hourly payments for truck drivers and other workers and a clause that prohibits review of labor rates, Bishop said.
Whitefish remains in Puerto Rico and expects to continue through November. It has 446 people working on the island as of Tuesday, the company said, mostly through subcontracts.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz — an outspoken critic of the Whitefish contract and the Trump administration’s response to the storm — also declined to testify.
Bishop, who visited the island last month, said restoring the power grid is “paramount” to solve immediate emergency needs in Puerto Rico.
Retired Air Force Col. Noel Zamot, named to oversee power restoration, said he had no estimate for when work would be completed, although other officials have said power will not be fully restored until next year.
The power authority declared bankruptcy before the storm, and Bishop said a long history of severe mismanagement, inadequate maintenance and “political cronyism” have exacerbated the island’s problems.
Tuesday’s hearing was not intended to “ascribe blame or browbeat or play politics,” Bishop said. “The goal isn’t to shame for shame’s sake. The goal is to fix problems and help people.”
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, defended the Trump administration’s response and said the severity of the storm has made recovery difficult.
More than 100,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island since the storm hit, with most settling in states such as Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.