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May 2018

The Puerto Rico Recovery
A study in unpreparedness and blunder

On May 21, 2018, the House Appropriations Committee approved FY 2019 U.S. DOT funding bill.  As stated in "Roads & Bridges", "In total, the bill reflects an allocation of $71.8 billion in discretionary spending--$1.5 billion above fiscal year 2018 enacted level and $23.8 billion above the request.  The allocation reflects the second year of bipartisan budget agreement and again targets resources to rebuild our nation's infrastructure, including airports, roads, bridges and rail."  This legislative action occurred during Infrastructure Week, May 14-21, 2018.  Subtitles associated with promotion of this national event include, "The future won't wait.  Neither can we.  It's#TimeToBuild".  Read on to learn about a delay of action for over half a century!

In mid-September, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the island; earlier that same month Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, passed directly over the island in its wake destroyed homes, infrastructure and a lack of power.  Maria completed the destruction by plunging the entire island into darkness.  No electric power anywhere.  Today, seven and a half months later, the island has yet to make a full recovery of its electrical grid. 

What happened and why?

To be sure, the Maria/Irma hurricane twins were two of the most powerful storms in recorded history, both Category V, with sustained winds well in excess of 175 mph.  Moreover they both placed direct hits on Puerto Rico suffering after years of sustained economic crisis bordering on bankruptcy.  This economic crisis had two major impacts on the island's infrastructure:  Maintenance was deferred (for years) and there were no spare parts.  

To understand a little more about why the electrical grid was so damaged, it is important to understand that it was constructed in the 1950's to standards of the time, and had not been upgraded or even properly maintained over the nearly 70 years of its life.  Power is generated by a series of fossil fuel driven centralized powerplants and distributed by transmission lines that cross mountainous jungle terrain inaccessible except by helicopters.  The strong winds simply blew many of the towers down destroying the electrical grid.  

  • The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, (Prepa, as it's called) hired a small, understaffed US firm, Whitefish Energy Holdings (linked to US Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke) to handle the reconstruction.  The firm was neither staffed, nor equipped, nor experienced to handle a project of this magnitude.   
  • Prepa declined the offer from other mainland utility companies to assist in the reconstruction.  (Most utility companies enter into a mutual assistance agreement whereby they help each other recover from major incidents.)
  • FEMA then called in the Army Corps of Engineers to lead and manage the recovery.  But the Corps, highly experienced in projects like dam construction and flood control, does not have extensive experience in power grid reconstruction.  
  • Federal law behind disaster reconstruction mandates that the reconstruction be to the same standards as existed before the disaster.  This meant that in 2018, contractors had to construct to 1950 standards.  Much of the cable, tower component parts, generation equipment and other necessary hardware is no longer manufactured, this meant trying to replicate the 1950's components on site.  

Finally after over a month of recovery wheel spinning, the Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo stepped in and made some pointed suggestions of how to recover.  His first strong suggestion:  call for mutual aid from mainland utility companies, resulted in experienced and equipped electrical workers from all across the US arriving to begin the reconstruction.  By mid-November several communities began to receive power.  

Today, most of the island's power has been restored.  Estimates show that 78 percent of the grid is up and servicing the Puerto Rican population but pockets of blackness still remain.  

There is a lot remaining to be done, but more important long term is to understand the causative factors and to build a more sustainable and resilient infrastructure on this island.  And, of course to learn from this debacle.  

Returning author Michael S. Ellegood, PE,  states information for this article came primarily from a series of articles appearing in the New York Times.  How do we take responsibility for such an enormous disaster like what has occurred in Puerto Rico?  What comes to mind first moving forward is to immediately rewrite 1950's federal law concerning disaster reconstruction mandates to bring  standards of practice into the 21st century.  

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