Six Months Later, Puerto Rico Recovery Inches On
In some parts of Puerto Rico, it looks like Hurricane Maria hit last month—not six months ago. In mountainous Naranjito, residents use river water for bathing and laundry; in Morovis, just 37 miles southwest of San Juan, residents remain relatively isolated as work continues on a replacement for the bridge washed away by the hurricane; in Yabucoa, where Maria came ashore, there is little evidence that electricity had ever served the people there.
Even in San Juan, electricity, though restored, is spotty at best, and kept constant in hospitals and hotels with generators. More than half of the traffic signals in the territory are dark, leaving drivers to fend for themselves Mario Kart-style at intersections.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says more than 94% of electricity has been restored to the island—a statistic that seems “optimistic” even to the subcontractors working to restore power. Restoration could be slowed further by the departure of Fluor Corp., which scaled back its work following a bid protest over a Corps contract.
Louis Berger, the contractor for temporary power for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, still has 869 generators around the island, and is assessing a request to place 215 more at schools. The previous record for generator installations was Hurricane Sandy, when The Army Corps installed about 350 generators.
“We are moving from the response phase to the recovery phase right now,” says Alejandro De La Campa, director of the regional Federal Emergency Management Agency and a Puerto Rican native. “We have done the best that we could with the resources that we have. We have a long, long way to go.” De La Campa says the reconstruction and mitigation phase will take three to five years. Stephen Spears, president of the Puerto Rico chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, expects that the work will last longer.
“The scope of this storm is absolutely incredible,” he said. In the midst of a March 21 interview at AGC’s office in a modern building in San Juan, power went off for about 15 minutes. “We worked for five years on mitigation for Hugo, and Hugo just gave us a glancing blow.” By contrast, Maria entered Puerto Rico as a strong Category 4 hurricane, with winds up to 155 mph and swept across the center of the island.
"We were not expecting to have this much damage at all," says Humberto Reynolds, president of Del Valle Group. "It was a challenge. It still is a challenge." says Reynolds, whose office was without power for 125 days after the storm and was flooded after authorities released water from La Plata Lake Dam in Toa Alta to prevent overtopping.
Reynolds and other contractors showed up at the highway authority the Monday after the storm and were assigned tasks to help make roads and bridges usable around the island. Del Valle repaired scouring around bridges, was tapped by the power utility to help repair the failing Guajataca Dam and was hired to do repair work for the territory's water authority.
Alejandro Abrams Gonzalez, vice president of Desarrolladora J.A. Inc., whose company went to work the day after the storm clearing roads, thinks infrastructure work is about 25% complete, and Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority expects to spend another $660 million on infrastructure, ranging from work to replace bridges to replacing more than 5,000 retaining walls. Seven contractors, including four from Puerto Rico, have been engaged to work on a $1.68-billion program to help people repair and reoccupy their homes. About 134,000 homeowners have applied for the program, but inspections on completed work have reached just 2,000.
Spears says the regional construction industry, which before the economic recession that hit 10 years ago had 100,000 workers, now has about 40,000, and he anticipates that number will double by the end of the year. Spears says there’s plenty of expertise and manpower on the island already. What cash-strapped Puerto Rico needs now is trust from the mainland—and money, he adds.
“Funding is certainly one of the most critical factors,” says Scott Rasor, head of construction for Zurich North America. “All those involved, from contractors to investors, need to be creative in exploring a variety of funding solutions. There is not one solution that fits all needs. More conversations and new insights continue to be needed.” Zurich is holding a roundtable on funding solutions in Puerto Rico on April 5.
Payment Past Due
Desarrolladora and other local firms that worked clearing roads and completing emergency repairs after the storm still haven’t been paid by the Puerto Rican government, which is under a financial oversight board and saddled with a debt topping $70 billion. According to a financial filing from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the utility has not paid local contractors a cent of the $26 million the contractors are owed. However, PREPA has paid $314 million to stateside contractors.
“Some of those contractors or suppliers are now on the brink of bankruptcy after six months without a paycheck,” Spears says. “The large stateside contractors who work for PREPA are getting paid, maybe not in a timely fashion, but enough to keep them on the job. They [statesiders] use the threat of retiring their troops to exact payment.”
The same problems extend to public works, cities and the water company, he says. Federal agencies are paying contractors, Spears says, but that work isn’t necessarily going to local contractors. And money is trickling in slowly there as well. While Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosello, a Democrat, has asked so far for $94 billion to rebuild the territory, Congress has approved only about $20 billion in aid.
Patrick Balcazar, principal for San Diego Project Management, said his company, with licensed engineers, has a contract with the Corps to provide quality assurance for the blue-roof program. After the storm, though, he was asked only to provide drivers and translators. A Corps spokeswoman responded that the blue roof program, which has installed almost 60,000 blue tarp roofs, doesn’t require engineers. In another example, Balcazar said in the days after the storm the federal government held a meeting for contractors to discuss post-Maria recovery. The meeting location? Miami.
“The Puerto Rican people have been incredibly patient,” Spears says. “I don’t think there’s a state in the union that would have put up with what the Puerto Rican people have put up with.”
All of the work ahead is underscored by the work yet to do on the power grid. Hurricane Maria’s wind decimated Puerto Rico’s grid, leaving the island in the dark for weeks. Not only did hurricane winds take down the distribution lines to homes, the transmission lines—which bring most of the island’s power from plants in the south to the population centers in the north—crumpled.
"It took 40 years to build the grid, and 24 hours to wipe it out," says Reynolds.
For weeks, a lack of supplies, equipment and money kept much of the population in the dark. One month after the storm, only 19% of customers had power.
Spears’ company was contracted by PREPA to help restore some of the power. They managed as well as they could, he says. “There were no materials,” he says. “We went to all of the downed poles and pulled off all the material that was reusable. We would work until we ran out of materials and then we went out and recycled again.”
PREPA also entered into a $300-million contract with Whitefish Energy of Montana that sparked controversy because it had two employees and political ties to the Trump administration, but little experience. Though Puerto Rico contractors praise the work Whitefish did, PREPA canceled the contract and turned to mutual aid agreements with stateside utilities that sent workers and equipment at-cost to the territory. PREPA also has a $945-million contract with Mammoth Energy Services subsidiary Cobra to help restore power.
On Sept. 27, a week after Maria, FEMA tasked the Army Corps of Engineers to help rebuild the grid, the first time the Corps had assumed such a role in the U.S. Describing the job, Col. Jason Kirk, commander, says, “The magnitude of the destruction is beyond that which has been seen anywhere in America.” He says more than 80% of the grid was damaged, including more than 30,000 miles of distribution line and 2,000 miles of transmission lines.
The task was made more difficult by the condition of the grid before the storm. “The work was much poorer than U.S. standards,” says Mark Heron, an electrician with the John Day Lock and Dam. He is one of 2,000 Corps personnel that have been cycled into Puerto Rico on 30-day stints. The utility, which is $9 billion in debt, had not kept up on routine maintenance.
FEMA allocated the Corps about $1.95 billion for the power restoration mission. Another approximately $2 billion has been allocated by Congress to make the grid in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands more resilient.
Rossello is pushing a plan to privatize the utility and to modernize the grid with more microgrids and renewable power.
“In the areas where [the grid] was just mitigated—where it was only fixed and band-aided, or whatever you want to call it, slapped back together to make it work—those areas are still extremely vulnerable,” Spears says. “Should we have another storm, we should expect to have major power outages once again.”
In October, the Corps hired Fluor to begin assessments and restoration of the grid and later expanded Fluor’s contract to more than $1 billion. It also awarded Southern Co.’s Power Secure contracts of more than $390 million to assist with power restoration.
The Corps brought 26 million individual items to the island to help restore power—from nuts and bolts to 400 miles of power poles and enough conductor wire to stretch from Washington, D.C., to London three times. Even stateside, acquiring that much material would have been difficult, Kirk says. The task was made herculean by having to acquire American-made materials and have them shipped by sea to the island.
In addition to the problems with Whitefish, power restoration has occurred in fits and starts. In early February, an explosion and fire at a substation caused a blackout in San Juan and several northern cities. In November, the head of PREPA resigned. He was replaced months later, on March 20, when PREPA appointed Water Higgins, an outsider and electric utility veteran, as its new CEO. Higgins, 72, formerly led NV Energy, the main provider of electricity in Nevada, and ran Bermuda’s electric company.
And as of March 19, Fluor wrapped up its power restoration efforts, which included 3,000 people and 2,000 pieces of equipment, after an ongoing Court of Federal Claims process limited Fluor’s contract to $750 million, according to Corps spokeswoman Sarah Bennett. The confidential bid protest, filed by IAP Worldwide Services, protested the Corps’ $265-million expansion of Fluor’s original contract, according to court filings.
Francisco Diaz-Masso, president and CEO of Bermuda, Longo, Diaz-Masso, was working as a subcontractor for Fluor. He said everyone was shocked when work was stopped. “It was a surprise and a challenge for us,” he says. “We reached out to [the community] and did the best we could. There are people who are anxious and frustrated after so many months.”
Fluor says its role was to scope, coordinate and make interim repairs to segments of the electrical grid, and it restored power to 250,000 residents before they put “tools down.”
PREPA is reporting that 100,000 customers are still without power. That number is also being used by the Corps, which does not independently verify the numbers.
Diaz-Masso says the number seems low. “I can honestly tell you one thing—there were still a lot people without power” when his crews stopped work.
According to a March 21 filing with the Puerto Rican government, PREPA says 93% of its 342 substations are energized, and the estimate of customers who have had power restored assumes that homes are fully repaired and able to take power, “which is not the case for all properties.”
PREPA will be in charge of the last 5% of the grid restoration, including rebuilding about 30% of the transmission lines that add redundancy to the power grid.
The work to restore power to the last customers is proving to be painstaking and difficult. The work is largely in mountains served by winding one-lane roads, or no roads at all. The Corps has brought in helicopters to move workers, install towers and poles and string wire.
On March 21, in Naranjito, in the central region of Puerto Rico, a helicopter was brought in just to lift a 1,500-lb wooden pole into a hand-dug hole because there was no way to get equipment up the incline where the pole was located. “The elevation is so steep that the helicopter is our best option. Anything else would be fairly unsafe to do,” says Heron.
After conductor wire is strung from the pole and PREPA turns on the power, all the work performed to erect that single pole will restore power to just two homes.
The difficulty is told in the restoration numbers, which vary wildly depending on where crews are at work. On March 15, the Corps restored power to 12,270 homes or buildings. On March 18, the tally was only 592 homes or buildings.
Michael Ornella, second in command for the Puerto Rico mission for the Corps, tells his people not to get depressed when they have slow progress: “There are families that got to eat dinner with the lights on tonight.”
By Pam Radtke Russell with Scott Blair in Puerto Rico
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