It has been four months since hurricane Maria wiped out Puerto Rico but 13.6 million people are still without power, almost half the population. The territory’s worst disaster in 90 years tore away power poles and electric lines from one end of the island paradise to the other.
A contingent of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was sent down to assist with the huge job of rebuilding the entire power grid. Last weekend their technicians were infuriated to discover a hidden stockpile of “transformers, splices and other materials” sitting unused in a warehouse owned by the island’s electricity provider, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). “The items are critical to the ongoing mission to restore power to Puerto Rico,” according to corps spokeswoman Lynn Rose, yet they were left lying dormant “in a warehouse at PREPA’s Palo Seco plant.” The Corps of engineers immediately “began distributing the materials to its contractors.”
Long before the storm obliterated Puerto Rico, PREPA was riddled by mismanagement, bankruptcy, and rumors of administrative corruption. With nearly $9 billion of outstanding debt, the utility did little to maintain “sorely outdated infrastructure.” PREPA’s money troubles are nothing compared to what is about to be unleashed. In a statement issued Thursday, Governor Ricardo Rossello ordered the island’s Justice Department to investigate what “rules were violated and/or crimes were committed against the public interest.”
With hundreds of thousands of homes without heat or power, people are dying. Businesses are closed. Meanwhile, thousands of necessary spare parts were “hidden,” until liberated by federal agents. After the cache of materials was discovered Friday, FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entered the Palo Seco warehouse with an armed security detail on Saturday and started passing out the parts.
According to spokesperson Luciano Vera, “Leadership responsible for restoring the Puerto Rico power grid and their security detail toured the warehouse in cooperation with PREPA. USACE conducted a full inventory and immediately sent out critical materials to contractors at work sites. USACE will continue to distribute critical materials from the site to contractors.”
Officials are sitting down with “PREPA and its restoration partners” to slap them around until they have an “inventory of all materials on the island.” The corps was really happy to find some specialized supplies “including hard-to-find full-tension steel sleeves, critical to rebuilding.” Vera notes, “we obtained several hundred of these sleeves on Saturday.”
Warehouse 5, the one raided by the feds, was so large they are still taking inventory. “Due to the size of the warehouse, accounting for everything contained therein is still underway,” Vera relates. So far, they found, “2,875 pieces of critical material to contractors,” not counting the steel sleeves.
A lack of proper materials has been frustrating to workers trying to restore power. A security contractor who just returned from there reported, “crews of linemen brought down from the U.S. were frustrated about the lack of rebuilding materials, which made it virtually impossible for them to fix downed infrastructure.” One of the workers told him, “we just sat in the truck and watched a movie because we have nothing to do today.”
The contractor’s job was to provide security for the power crews while they performed repairs but “they didn’t have anything to do or to work on. They had had a bunch of poles but no lines, or any of the stuff that goes on the poles. They were just setting bare poles, getting as far as they could go. We were in a town for two weeks and barely got anything done because they didn’t have the supplies.”
Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, Puerto Rico’s Senate minority leader, also weighed in on the weekend raid. “The news that has come out today about the discovery made by armed federal agents of thousands of electrical spare parts hidden in a PREPA warehouse borders on a criminal act by its managers.”
“It is time for people to stand up and demand answers. Hundreds of thousands of families have been in the dark for more than 125 days, people keep dying, and businesses continue to close due to the lack of energy while the necessary spare parts were in the possession of PREPA. Lying about not having the parts to cover the inefficiency of PREPA is outrageous and those responsible must be taken before state and federal authorities to be criminally processed immediately.”
Some of the islands local mayors have taken it upon themselves to buy “grid restoration supplies out of municipal budgets.” San Sebastián’s mayor, Javier Jiménez Pérez, “compiled a team of electricians, retired PREPA employees, and volunteers to form the Pepino Power Authority.” By the end of the year, “the makeshift recovery crew had restored power to 2,000 homes, with smaller teams splitting up to return electricity to different neighborhoods.”
Local residents aren’t very happy with PREPA. They say they haven’t seen anyone from the official power company since the hurricane hit.