YABUCOA, Puerto Rico — Rafael Surillo Ruiz was on the way to San Juan when he noticed that all the traffic lights had gone out. Surillo is the mayor of Yabucoa, among the first communities struck by Hurricane Maria in September, and for months he had been lobbying federal officials, local officials, utility officials — anyone who might help the thousands of his constituents still waiting to get their power back.
“You have to understand that half our population still does not have power,” Surillo said the day after the April 18 blackout, recalling the morning after Hurricane Maria when he emerged from his operations center to see the Yabucoa City Hall devastated, houses smashed and downed power lines and poles littering the streets and countryside.
Even now, while officials say the $2.5 billion reconstruction effort has restored power to 98 percent of the grid’s customers, swaths of hilly country across the island are still pitch black after dark, punctuated by lights run on private generators. Even restored sections of the grid are nightmarishly unreliable, as evidenced by last month’s outage, the second major power failure in a week and the fourth since early February.
On the mainland, much of the coverage of the recovery has focused on the struggles of the island’s beleaguered power authority and its politically disastrous hiring of Whitefish Energy Holdings, a tiny and inexperienced Montana contractor linked to the Trump administration’s interior secretary. Here in Puerto Rico, the perception of a condescending and under-responsive government in Washington has been fed by the enduring image of President Donald Trump seeming to minimize the catastrophe while tossing paper towels into a crowd.
But an examination of the power grid’s reconstruction — based on a review of hundreds of documents and interviews with dozens of public officials, utility experts and citizens across the island — shows how a series of decisions by federal and Puerto Rican authorities together sent the effort reeling on a course that would take months to correct.
When the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, hired Whitefish for the reconstruction, it also declined to request direct assistance from mainland utilities that for decades had routinely dispatched workers to help one another recover from disasters large and small.
At the same time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency made a highly unusual decision of its own. Rather than advise Puerto Rico to accept aid from the mainland utilities, FEMA abruptly called in the Army Corps of Engineers — never mind that the corps had never rebuilt a major grid after a storm and by its own account had not made preparations to take on the task in Puerto Rico.
The result was a chaotic tangle of overlapping missions and fumbling coordination.
Compounding those problems, the grid was decrepit, corroded and poorly maintained, and PREPA — which, like Puerto Rico as a whole, is effectively bankrupt — had failed to keep sufficient stocks of replacement parts and other critical supplies. Shipments of parts from the mainland were slow to arrive and languished in the battered ports.
“I’ve never seen anything like that — not in a developed nation,” said Ed Muller, a former energy executive whose generation and transmission equipment suffered flooding by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, severe storm damage in Jamaica and earthquakes in California.
It took more than a month for PREPA’s decision on aid from utilities, known as mutual assistance, to be undone. In late October, with the reconstruction seemingly stalled, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico met with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a veteran of Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters. Cuomo strongly recommended invoking mutual aid.
Weeks more would pass before the full mobilization got underway, but beginning in November, the first of some 3,000 utility workers from across the country began pouring in.
PREPA’s new chief, Walter Higgins, said that he was communicating with unhappy municipalities, but that the catastrophic damage in mountainous terrain made the job “more difficult than any other restoration ever experienced in Puerto Rico, perhaps anywhere.”
For its part, FEMA said its effort had moved rapidly, though it conceded that the final pieces — the “last mile” — were especially challenging.
— No Call for Mutual Aid
In Puerto Rico, “mutual aid should have been one of the first things they did,” said James Lee Witt, who ran FEMA during the Clinton administration.
Puerto Rico has 2,400 often mountainous miles of high-voltage transmission lines, 342 substations and 30,000 miles of lower-voltage distribution lines that go to neighborhoods and homes, according to PREPA. Hurricane Maria damaged 80 percent of that system.
But on Sept. 28, eight days after the storm made landfall, two parallel decisions drove the monumental rebuilding into uncharted territory.
In a conference call with PREPA, government and utility officials delivered a collective offer of mutual aid: “We stand ready to help you,” they said, according to Mike Hyland, a senior vice president at the American Public Power Association, who was on the call. But the PREPA officials, he recalled, said they were hiring Whitefish to restore the entire system.
With that, PREPA placed its chips on a tiny company with hardly any full-time employees.
At the same time, FEMA made its own request, enlisting the Army Corps to provide emergency repairs to the grid.
FEMA had already given the corps a task it routinely performed: bringing in emergency generators for hospitals, clinics, town centers and other facilities. By all accounts, those measures were carried out successfully.
But the corps “has never repaired an electrical power grid of this magnitude as part of a domestic disaster response,” said its commander, Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite. Although it had placed “a small contingent” in Puerto Rico before Maria to assess eventual damage, he added, the corps “could not predict” the assignment to restore the grid.
FEMA and the corps both said they had had no hand in PREPA’s decision to hire Whitefish. Asked why FEMA had brought in the corps, Lea Crager, a FEMA spokeswoman, said, “Due to the magnitude of this storm and the devastation caused to the grid, we knew repair and rebuilding of the grid would take a joint effort.”
Ricardo Ramos, PREPA’s director at the time, has made a series of disparate statements about why the authority did not invoke mutual aid.
“It was always my intention to call upon them,” Ramos said in a recent interview.
But until they receive reimbursement from FEMA, utilities often must pay for things like workers’ food and housing via mutual aid. In October, Ramos told The New York Times that he had not wanted to exhaust PREPA’s emergency funds paying mutual-aid groups while waiting for reimbursement.
Ramos said he had no regrets. Roselló, however, acknowledged that his government had fallen short — that it should have had “some sort of agreements already in line,” as well as a “rainy-day fund” for mutual-aid payments.
For its part, the Army Corps moved as swiftly as federal regulations allowed, Semonite said. But even after invoking emergency measures to speed the effort, he said, it was not until Oct. 19 that the corps awarded the second of two major restoration contracts. The contractors, in turn, had to scout the damage before work could begin.
— Precarious Progress
In the hills above downtown San Lorenzo, Sylvia Martínez woke at 3:30 a.m. every workday, heated water on the gas stove and carried it to her bathroom in a pot so she could shower — using a plastic cup — before her long commute to San Juan. She developed an affection for easy-to-make meals of Cheez Whiz and crackers.
It was against a backdrop of scant visible progress that Rosselló met with Cuomo in a back room at the San Juan convention center on Oct. 26, more than five weeks after the storm.
Not long after, Rosselló demanded Whitefish’s ouster and PREPA terminated the contract. Whitefish stayed to finish work that included repairing five transmission lines, which a company spokesman says was successfully done. Whitefish filed papers in federal court to recover more than $100 million it said it was still owed.
Ahsha Tribble, FEMA’s deputy administrator for the region that includes Puerto Rico, said the agency had made “unbelievable progress,” adding that “by late April, 78 percent of the transmission has been energized, as we continue to support PREPA in the emergency work to restore power.”
With the continuing blackouts, and nearly 900 temporary generators still on the island, according to congressional testimony, it is hard to gauge the true state of the grid or how lasting the fixes will be.
In San Lorenzo, after her breakfast of Cheez Whiz and coffee, Martínez still carries hot water from her stove to the shower in a 3-gallon pot. Then she drives to work in the predawn, the Big Dipper visible in the sky above the dark hilltop.