Official says Puerto Rico needs ‘unprecedented’ US help
Washington — 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 federal control board, 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.
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 criticism from members of Congress and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello.
The utility’s chairman, Ernesto Sgroi, said in a letter that Ramos was needed in Puerto Rico to oversee restoration efforts.
“Having (Ramos) off the island for the three days required to come to Washington D.C., would undoubtedly disrupt our restoration efforts,” Sgroi said.
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.
Long-term energy transformation is equally important, Bishop said, adding that better and more transparent accountability at PREPA is also essential to Puerto Rico’s long-term future. 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.